FRANKFORT, Ky. -- The son of a tobacco farmer running for governor in Kentucky endorsed a statewide smoking ban in most workplaces on Tuesday, a sign of the evolving tobacco politics in a state once dominated by the cancer-causing cash crop.
Adam Edelen grew up on a tobacco farm in Meade County and said he was raised to believe "Santa Claus lived in the tobacco patch." But in a state with one of the highest adult and youth smoking rates in the country, Edelen said he felt compelled to endorse a plan that would ban smoking at enclosed workplaces, including bars and restaurants with three or more employees. Facilities that specialize in tobacco products and services would be exempt, he said.
"I also understand, I think better than anybody, the cultural hold that tobacco has had on Kentucky," Edelen said. "But Kentuckians have got to stop being victims of our history. We've got to start building a better future."
For decades, tobacco was an important cash crop that formed a pillar of this rural state's economy. But like the coal industry, tobacco has faltered recently because of a mix of market and political forces. Now, state regulators have painted anti-smoking murals on former tobacco barns that once filled the countryside.
Kentucky's major cities have had public smoking bans in place for years. And most workplaces already ban smoking. But many rural areas of the state don't have smoking bans, and it's still OK to light a cigarette in some rural manufacturing plans and bars and restaurants, including bingo halls, according to Bonnie Hackbarth, spokeswoman for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Out of Kentucky's 173 school districts, 99 do not ban tobacco products on school property or at school-sponsored events.
Legislative efforts to pass a statewide workplace smoking ban in Kentucky have stalled in recent years. Tobacco companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying the state legislature and are often among the top spenders for each session.
But public support for a statewide smoking ban has been growing. A 2017 poll by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found more than seven in 10 people in Kentucky supported a statewide smoking ban, according to a telephone survey of 1,580 adults that had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
"I think one of the reasons that we've not been successful in getting this passed is we haven't had governors lead form the front on this issue," Edelen said.
At least 25 states have enacted workplace smoking bans, and another five states have banned smoking in bars and restaurants, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who is running for re-election, has said smoking bans should be a local issue. But he has chosen for his running mate Republican state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a medical doctor who has led the fight for a statewide smoking ban.
Recently, Alvarado and other lawmakers have shifted their focus to ban all tobacco products at Kentucky's public schools and school-sponsored events, a proposal that is gaining traction in the state legislature this year.
"It isn't as simple as a governor saying, 'I want it,' or not. You have to have the buy-in of the legislature," Alvarado said.
Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents last year, bringing total taxes to $1.10 a pack. Lawmakers used the extra money to balance the budget, which included an increase in public education spending.
Tuesday, Edelen proposed increasing the cigarette tax to the national average of $1.70 a pack. He said he would use some of the extra money on smoking cessation programs. Edelen said he is a former smoker who quit "cold turkey" when his sons were born.
"I am not a nanny state candidate. I believe If you want to smoke you should be able to," he said. "But I also believe those who choose not to smoke, those who choose to protect their health in the workplace or the health of their children have a right to a law that protects them."
Edelen is one of four Democrats running for governor this year. The others are state Attorney General Andy Beshear, state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins and former state employee Geoff Young.
On the Republican side, Bevin is seeking re-election but faces challenges from William Woods, Ike Lawrence and state Rep. Robert Goforth.
The Republican and Democratic primaries are May 21.