Two decades of data show Kentucky communities with strong smoke-free laws have 8 percent fewer cases of lung cancer

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky communities with strong laws against smoking in workplaces have fewer cases of lung cancer, according to a University of Kentucky study that says it's the first to show such findings.

Researchers found that residents of counties with comprehensive smoke-free laws, including those with city-only smoking bans, were 8 percent less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than those living in communities without smoke-free laws.

There was no difference in lung-cancer rates between places that don't have smoking bans and those that have moderate or weak laws. The study considered laws to be comprehensive if they covered all workplaces, including restaurants and bars; moderate if they covered indoor public places, but not all workplaces; and weak if they allowed for major exemptions.

The researchers say the findings could encourage more localities to pass smoking bans. Only a third of Kentuckians are covered by such ordinances.


"Local government can play a critical role in preventing lung cancer," Ellen Hahn, the lead author of the study, said in a UK news release. "Elected officials can ensure that all workers and the public are protected from secondhand smoke by passing strong smoke-free laws with few or no exceptions."

Hahn is a UK nursing professor and director of the Bridging Research Efforts and Advocacy Toward Healthy Environments initiative at UK.

The BREATHE researchers looked at 20 years of lung-cancer data for more than 80,000 Kentuckians 50 and older. (Few Kentuckians under 50 have lung cancer.) The state has more cases of lung cancer than any other state, and its death rate from the disease is 50 percent higher than the national average. And not surprisingly, at 25 percent, Kentucky leads the nation in adult smoking.

Jim Waters, president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a libertarian, free-market think tank, said that while lower rates of lung cancer are "wonderful," correlation does not equal causation and therefore public policy should not be built around it. "You can't attribute deaths directly to a single cause such as smoking," he said, "since many factors usually are involved: hereditary issues, poor diet, lack of exercise and education."

Hahn said the study did take other causes of lung cancer into account. "We used a sound, well-known statistical method to consider the other factors that may have affected new cases of lung cancer, in addition to smoke-free laws," she said. "Even after taking sex, age, smoking rate, and income into account, comprehensive smoke-free laws were associated with fewer new cases of lung cancer."

Hahn said factors that protect Kentuckians from lung cancer were being female, being younger, and living in a county with a lower smoking rate or higher median household income in the county.

Waters said his institute supports education efforts to encourage people not to smoke "without the punitive action of denying individuals the right to participate in a legal practice on private property. . . . Where does that end? We don't believe such reasoning will end with anti-smoking policies."

Hahn replied, "Research shows that simply educating the public not to smoke does not work to lower smoking rates or to reduce disease from tobacco smoke exposure. Smoke-free laws are known to reduce disease," heart attacks and hospital visits for emphysema and asthma, as BREATHE summarizes. "Just as we have laws to prohibit drunk driving (alcohol is legal), smoke-free laws prohibit smoking (legal) indoors where the second-hand smoke can harm workers and the public."

Ben Chandler, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and chair of the recently launched Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, called on Kentuckians to use this research to pass more smoke-free laws.

"We know that the Kentucky communities with smoke-free laws covering every workplace and public building are protecting the freedom of their residents and visitors to breath air untainted by dangerous secondhand smoke," Chandler said. "We know that a secondary benefit of these laws is that they help reduce smoking. But here's solid evidence from more than 20 years of data showing a significant decline in lung cancer."

The latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll on the issue found that 71 percent supported a statewide law to ban smoking in public places and the workplace. The state House passed such a ban in 2014, when it was controlled by Democrats, but the bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate, and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who took office in 2015, says smoking bans should be a local issue.

The study was published in Cancer, a journal of the American Cancer Society. An editorial in the journal said the "unique and important" study "has shared an incredibly valuable insight into the impact of smoke-free ordinances on lung cancer mortality" and emphasizes "the need for statewide, not municipal, enforcement for maximum efficacy."

Share this

Related Posts

Previous
Next Post »