For decades, we have known that tobacco is a threat to our health. Over time, we have learned just how harmful tobacco is and the cost it exacts on our health, our quality of life, and our economy. Fortunately, we have also learned effective ways to prevent harm from tobacco and to protect whole communities from secondhand smoke.

Tobacco is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in Kentucky and the U.S. No level of secondhand smoke is considered safe. This is painfully clear in Kentucky where we live with the consequences of the 2nd highest smoking rate in the country; the highest rate of births to mothers who smoked during pregnancy; and the highest lung cancer and lung cancer death rates in the U.S.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to address the unmet health care needs of Kentuckians. As part of this mission, we have worked for years to reduce the harm that tobacco causes Kentucky communities. Each year, we gauge Kentuckians’ views and attitudes through the Kentucky Health Issues Poll – and we’ve been asking Kentuckians about smoke-free policies.

Since 2011, a majority of Kentuckians has expressed support for a statewide, comprehensive smoke-free policy. In our most recent poll, two-thirds of Kentuckians of all political persuasions expressed support for a state law that would prohibit smoking in most public places, including workplaces, public buildings, offices, restaurants, and bars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants, lead to health improvements for workers and the community as a whole. We’re already seeing that impact in places like Lexington, which adopted such a law over a decade ago. Further, CDC notes that the more comprehensive a law is, the greater the decreases in health risk.

This year’s KHIP also found that 61% of Republicans and Democrats support raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21, and nearly half support further increases in the excise tax on tobacco. If you’re one of the 26% of Kentuckians who are former smokers, or one of the 26% who still do, you know the best bet is not to start – and not to share your exhaled smoke with others.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky supports comprehensive smoke-free policies at the state, local and organizational level. Because we are committed to reducing health disparities, eliminating health risks, and promoting health equity, the Foundation is particularly concerned about policies that leave any Kentuckians unprotected. It’s no secret that low income Kentuckians bear a heavier burden of disease, as a group, and are likely to die younger than their better-off neighbors. Rural areas of Kentucky – where the smoking rates are often higher and exposures to second-hand smoke often more frequent – are hit particularly hard.

Comprehensive smoke-free laws eliminate secondhand smoke exposure in public spaces and gently remind us smoking is not the norm (if 26% of us statewide smoke, that means 74% don’t). Incomplete policies that leave some Kentuckians unprotected tend to do the most harm to low-income communities, communities of color, low-wage workers (including young people), and those of us in communities with limited job opportunities.

Because smoking and secondhand smoke contribute to poor health in so many ways - cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and other respiratory problems, preterm births and birth defects, among others - lowering exposure to smoking and secondhand smoke can significantly impact the health of Kentuckians. Comprehensive smoke-free laws provide protection for all Kentuckians, without exception.

You know the problem, you know of proven solutions, and you know your neighbors stand with you in wanting to breathe clean air where we all live, work and play. If you are an employer, you can join hospital administrators, school superintendents, university presidents and small business owners and make your worksite smoke-free. If you dine out, you can choose to patronize only smoke- free establishments. If you plan events, hold them in smoke-free jurisdictions. And if you’re an elected official, listen to what your voters are saying again in the most recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll.

It is time for us to act to protect all Kentuckians from this wholly preventable cause of death, disease and disability. And we must do so without leaving anyone behind.