This week, dozens of students, administrators, superintendents and health advocates rallied in Frankfort to urge lawmakers to pass policies to reduce tobacco use among Kentucky's youth.

According to a press release from Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, "supporters were joined by champions of companion bills in the House and Senate, Rep. Kim Moser and Sen. Ralph Alvarado, who urged their colleagues to support and protect youth and teens by enacting," a health measure that would make all Kentucky schools 100 percent tobacco-free.

House Bill 11 and Senate Bill 27 would bar the use the tobacco products on and in property owned by Kentucky school districts, according to the release -- that would include anyone on campus, using vehicles owned by school districts, at events after school hours or on any school-owned property.

The bill would, "Create a new section of KRS Chapter 438 to define terms; prohibit use of tobacco products by students, school personnel, and visitors in schools, school vehicles, properties, and activities; require policies to be in place by the 2020-2021 school year; require that smoke-free policies and signage be adopted; provide that existing bans are not impacted."

"Most tobacco use starts while kids are still school-aged, at time when their brains are still developing and nicotine can hinder that development and cause lasting damage," Alvarado (R-Winchester), who introduced SB 27, said.

The hope is policies like this would begin to denormalize tobacco use among Kentucky's students.

Much of the most recent concern revolves around an increase in use of electronic cigarettes and similar devices like juuls and vaping, which comes after several years of decline in youth tobacco use rates.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 90 percent of tobacco use starts by age 18, and Kentucky's youth tobacco use rates significantly exceed national averages.

The 2017 Youth Behavior Risk Survey for Kentucky found that 26 percent of high school students (compared to 19.5 percent nationally) and 7.6 percent of middle schools students used a tobacco product in 2017.

Also in 2017, 14.1 percent of Kentucky high school students (compared to 13.2 percent nationwide) and 3.9 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest nationwide numbers for 2018 e-cigarette use in November, according to the press release. The CDC reports one in five high schoolers and one in 20 middle schoolers are now using e-cigarettes in the U.S., a 78-percent increase for high schoolers and a 48 percent increase for middle schoolers in less than a year.

"While 2018 numbers are not available yet for Kentucky, the results of focus group discussions with high school students in McCracken, Clay, Monroe, Campbell and Jefferson Counties, released by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates in December, indicate that Kentucky youth are mirroring the disturbing national trend," according to the Coalition.

According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 41 percent of Kentucky high school students have tried cigarettes.

The Coalition argues that tobacco-free school laws reduce teen tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke from cigarettes and aerosol from e-cigarettes and vapes.

The Kentucky Health Issues Poll, sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Interact for Health, found 87 percent of Kentucky adults support a statewide tobacco-free schools bill. The support came from across the political spectrum, including 89 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Independents. Adults in households with children (90 percent) and without children (85 percent) in the home both supported tobacco-free school policies. We also strongly support this policy.

Already nearly half of Kentucky's school districts have 100-percent tobacco-free policies.

Now is the time to extend that protection statewide and send a message that Kentucky will no longer stand complacent being one of the states most negatively impacted by tobacco use.

Kentucky ranks among the least healthy states in the U.S., and tobacco use plays a significant role in that ranking.

Kentucky ranked 45th for overall health outcomes -- down three spots from 2017, according to an annual report from America's Health Rankings.

According to that report, Kentucky ranks 49th for rates of smoking, with 24.6 percent of (or nearly 1 in 4) adults smoking. Kentucky also ranks poorly in other measures closely related to smok-ing, including leading the nation in cancer deaths with 234.9 deaths per 100,000 population. Additionally Kentucky's rate of cardiovascular deaths is 299.7, higher than the national average of 256.8.

By continuing to educate Kentucky's young people about the negative impact of smoking and enacting policies like that proposed in these bills, Kentucky can further reduce the negative impacts of tobacco on our people.

-- The (Danville) Advocate-Messenger