One day during this past fall term, I stepped into the elevator at work, and was nearly overcome by the stench of cigarette smoke. Since smoking is prohibited in all state buildings, including college buildings, I wondered if someone had been smoking in the parking garage (also not allowed, but not enforced on our campus), next to the elevator access door.
I mentioned the smell to one of our staff. He explained the source of the problem. The majority of the students in our respiratory care program smoke, and when they get their short breaks, they rush, en mass, from their third floor classroom, to the elevator and step outside the building, where they fire up their smokes for 10 minutes, and then at the last minute cram themselves back in the elevator carrying the putrid smell with them.
I have always found it disturbing that such a high percentage of our students smoke, and that every break between classes is a cigarette break. But as an asthma sufferer, I find it obscene that the majority of our respiratory care students are smokers. These are the people who hope to be entrusted with the care of people who suffer from breathing disorders.
Kentucky ranks number 1 in the percentage of adults who are smokers. More than 28 percent of Kentuckians smoke (2007 CDC report) . A study done in 1999-2000 found that 23 percent of pregnant women in Kentucky smoked. Though I have no hard data, I'm certain that both figures are higher in eastern Kentucky than in the urban portions of the state.
The political power of tobacco interests and smokers in Kentucky shows in the low cigarette taxes; only 30 cents per twenty-pack in 2008, lower by at least half compared to all but one of the state surrounding Kentucky. Other evidence of political power: the state of Kentucky has declared smokers a "protected class," and it is illegal to discriminate against smokers in employment and education (Cincinnati Enquirer October 22,2008), despite the well documented fact that smokers are more expensive employees than non-smokers. They are more likely to be absent, their medical costs are higher on average, and they always seem to be out taking a smoking break when you need them.
It seems more than reasonable to me that being a non-smoker should be a requirement for entry into certain fields of employment -- respiratory therapy being one of those. If nothing else, allied health programs (nursing, respiratory care, radiography, physical therapy assistant, and so forth) ought to put a high priority on developing "quit smoking" programs for their students. Many medical facilities, even in Kentucky, are creating smoke free campuses; that is they are eliminating smoking not only in all their buildings, but in all the outside areas between the buildings. Imagine being some one who smokes a pack or more a day, and discovering that in your job at a hospital or medical complex that you have to walk a block or more, and then stand on a busy public street in order to smoke. The Appalachian Regional Hospital (ARH) chain that serves eastern Kentucky has not yet moved in the direction of smokeless campuses, but not all graduates of allied health programs in eastern Kentucky will remain in the region.
Kentucky needs to consider raising cigarette taxes as well. It makes good health policy and would provided needed revenue.