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Kicking the habit

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By Brent Schanding

A student stole her last puff from a cigarette in the campus parking lot before heading into Henry County High School last week. She tossed the butt out the window of her car, doused herself with body spray and scrambled to beat the morning bell.

Today is National Kick Butts Day, a day when students are supposed to stand out, speak up and seize control in the fight against tobacco.

Some schools across the country are holding rallies, designing posters and launching anti-smoking campaigns to curb teenage smoking and tobacco use. But the event is being more modestly billed here.

While local schools aren't formally commemorating Kick Butts Day, teen anti-smoking efforts are always ongoing at both districts, school officials said.

Dr. Steve Frommeyer, principal of Eminence Independent high and middle schools said the district has realized declines in teen smoking over the years, in part because of an aggressive zero tolerance policy against tobacco.

Get caught puffing once and that's a suspension, Frommeyer said. Three strikes for smoking and a student could potentially be snuffed out of school.

"We've had less tobacco incidents in the past. We really don't have much of it on school property," Frommeyer said about student smoking. "That's not to say they don't do it out of school."

Henry County also has policies against smoking and tobacco use, which have likely reduced smoking in its schools.

Teen smoking rates are declining across Kentucky, according to reports from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

A state-funded smoking study from 2006 found 12 percent of Kentucky middle school students and 24 percent of high school students admitted to smoking. Although it's still among the highest rate in the nation, those numbers represent a 15 percent drop in teen smokers since 2002, according to the study.

Youth smoking in Henry County remains at 19 percent, according to another comparative assessment of health risks performed by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine. That's under par compared to the national average of 23 percent, the study found.

Both reports offer anecdotal evidence that advertising campaigns, like Kick Butts Day, and other anti-smoking marketing efforts are resonating with youth here. Educational outreaches in the classroom, including revamped health curriculums that address teen smoking, also seem to be making some impact, school leaders say.

"Our staff has done a good job educating the kids of the dangers of smoking," Frommeyer said. "But I think its important coaches also enforce no smoking with their players."

Despite the apparent payoffs of educating our youth against the dangers of tobacco, some say the broader battle against smoking here is more like a mini-thumb wrestling match. That's because Henry County is at the epicenter of the burley belt and has for decades built its economy with tobacco-stained money.

Any "fight" against tobacco products could further cripple tobacco farmers and those financially reliant on the crop, especially in this already slowing economy.

Burley battle

About 3.8 million pounds of tobacco are grown in Henry County, according to an estimate from the National Agricultural Statistics Service office of Kentucky. Tobacco companies have been exempt from reporting exact totals and other figures since the federal Tobacco Buyout legislation of 2004.

While the number of local tobacco farmers since the buyout has likely dwindled, tobacco production here has remained steady as remaining farmers increase outputs to keep pace with the stable demands of the marketplace.

"We're growing about as much tobacco here as we did in 2003 or 2004," Steve Moore, a local agent with UK Cooperative Extension Service agent estimated.

Moore estimated about 1,800 acres of tobacco fields remain in the county - a number he also expects hasn't changed much in the years following tobacco reforms.

While a handful of Henry County farmers have diversified their crops or solely converted their tobacco farms to cattle operations in fear of tobacco's uncertain future, more could be expected to follow.

"The older farmers have switched over to cattle if they can't find anyone to grow their tobacco," farmer Robert Reed Bush said. Bush, of Campbellsburg, is secretary of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.

But the county's rolling landscape makes it unsuitable for many other operations, he said.

"You get a lot of erosion when you deal with soy beans or corn here," although those crops have replaced tobacco in other regions of the state and nation.

Bad news

According to industry reports, Kentucky and other burley-rich states used to grow more than 75 percent of the world's tobacco. They presently account for less than 25 percent of those shares, according to figures from the the burley co-op.

Kentucky crops are being chiefly challenged by foreign suppliers in South America, Africa, Mexico and India. There, tobacco growers can raise crops cheaper.

While burley exports from those countries are growing, Bush said tobacco growers here hope to expand global exports of Kentucky tobacco to places like China and beyond. That could help the state rebound its shares in the global marketplace.

Still, that's about the only good news for tobacco farmers, who have seemingly faced a number of other hurdles lately.

Escalating labor and production costs, erradict weather patterns and mutating strains of tobacco diseases have made it hard for tobacco farmers to make a dependable living. Anti-smoking groups continue to lobby against tobacco and its producers, which also hurts the industry. Smoking bans have been instituted in a growing number of places across the Commonwealth - including Frankfort, Lexington, Louisville and neighboring Oldham County.

Health officials say those places have realized dramatic improvements to air qualities since they implemented the bans. Indoor air toxins dropped by as much as 90 percent in the six months after Lexington banned smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants.

Smoke if you got 'em...For now

But public officials here seem somewhat resistant to snuff the habit, especially considering the county's tobacco culture.

Henry was ranked the sixth most tobacco-dependent county in Kentucky, according to a state agricultural study. It's likely among the most dependent in the nation. The state tobacco dependency formula relies on factors such as the number of farmers growing tobacco and tobacco income as a percentage of total personal income in the county.

Tobacco has been grown here for hundreds of years, County Judge-Executive John Logan Brent said, and paid for many farm mortgages. The labor-intensive operation has been a way of life for people here, he said.

A ban on smoking would be like blowing smoke in the faces of tobacco growers, Brent believes.

"Although there would be some to argue, I think most would admit smoking is harmful to your health," he said. "But I just think it's such a part of the culture that it's more accepted. I'm going to encourage my children not to smoke, but it comes down to a personal choice."

Smoking is still permitted in nearly all restaurants, grocery stores and county buildings, although high judges have asked employees and others to refrain from smoking in the courthouse.

"Generally employees are respectful of that," Brent said, although no-smoking policy is loosely enforced with the general public.

Courthouse workers and other non-smokers have never challenged the "right" to smoke in the building, Brent said. Smoking is banned in all federal and state buildings.

While it's suddenly become vogue for public officials to banish smoking - partly because of its links to millions of health-related diseases and deaths - another county official says there's broader agendas to fume about.

"I think it's on the back of all our minds," Senior Magistrate Wayne Gunnell said. "We know smoking's not the most healthy thing to do. But we need to leave that option up to the individual. I think we have bigger issues to deal with," namely the fight against illegal drugs, especially among youth, he said.

"I don't see [smoking] as a top issue.".

Bans against smoking hurt private operations, Gunnell maintained.

Although he admits second-hand smoke is a problem, Gunnell said smokers and non-smokers have the choice to remove themselves from smoky areas - like bars and restaurants - and should exercise those options.

That seems to be the consensus as even the most likely proponents of a smoking ban say it would be hard-pressed to pass here.

"I don't smoke, my wife doesn't smoke and my two daughters don't smoke. But in Henry County it would be hard to establish a ban on smoking," said Earl Holmes, president of Henry County's Relay for Life, a division of the American Cancer Society. The Cancer Society has largely led efforts for smoking bans in other parts of the country.

"It's a proven thing that can't be good for you," Holmes said about smoking. - But [tobacco] is the number one money maker here."

Holmes has watched friends die from lung cancer and "I think the people who go through lung cancer probably wish they had never smoked," he said.

And even though smoking is banned outdoors at Henry County's Relay for Life - an annual cancer fundraiser, billed as the second largest event in the county behind the fair - there's a twist of irony about the event as strong as Kentucky King smokeless tobacco.

County tobacco farmers remain among the biggest contributors to the Relay's anti-cancer cause, Holmes said.

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.