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By Chuck Mason
Bowling Green Daily News
The single biggest factor affecting public health in Kentucky is tobacco, according to the state’s public health commissioner.
Dr. Stephanie Mayfield Gibson addressed public health students April 8 at Western Kentucky University. Gibson, a board-certified anatomic and clinical pathologist, was appointed commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health on Oct. 1, 2012. The commissioner serves as the chief executive officer for the Department for Public Health in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Gibson told students she is concerned about tobacco smoking, preventable hospitalizations and cancer incidence in the commonwealth “regardless of socioeconomic status.”
The commissioner has worked to shepherd Kynect, where about 400,000 people have signed up for health insurance. Kynect is Kentucky’s health insurance exchange implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act. Gibson said those signups put a sizable dent in the 600,000 of Kentucky’s 4.3 million residents who didn’t have health insurance when signups began.
Kentucky extended its enrollment period through April 11. Because of a last-minute overload to the system, some people may have had trouble signing up at kynect.ky.gov.
The national health insurance website signed up 7.1 million people, according to the White House.
“We want to reduce the rate of the uninsured (in Kentucky) to less than 5 percent,” the commissioner said.
Kentucky’s public health agenda is lengthy, with tobacco leading the list. The goals are to reduce smoking, obesity, cancer deaths and cardiovascular deaths by 10 percent. Gibson said it is “shameful” that despite cigarettes taxed at 60 cents a pack, tobacco use runs rampant in Kentucky, exposing many people who don’t smoke to harmful secondhand smoke.
Additionally, many of the cancer deaths – 222 deaths per 100,000 in Kentucky compared to the national average of 176.4 deaths per 100,000 – can be tied directly to tobacco use.
“Take your public health to the streets,” the commissioner said. “We need a secondhand smoke free policy and include e-cigarettes in it.”
Kentucky lawmakers have approved legislation that would prevent the sale of e-cigarettes to the sale of minors. The legislation, Senate Bill 109, is awaiting the signature of the governor. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine with vapor rather than smoke.
Gibson suggested WKU needs to have a completely smoke-free campus. “As students, you have more power than you realize – spread the word,” she said.
Keyana Boka, a senior biology major at WKU and student body president, said there has been talk by the Student Government Association to support an all-campus smoking ban if the two-year housing requirement is lifted.
“The problem is enforcement,” Boka said, noting that Gibson’s remarks were informative.
Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission through the Kentucky Press News Service.