FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has been at the forefront of pushing initiatives aimed at reducing tobacco consumption and improving the health of a state plagued by some of the nation's worst disease rates.
On Thursday, his tone shifted as he praised the economic benefits from a tobacco company's plans to expand its western Kentucky processing operations for smokeless tobacco products.
The approximately $118 million investment by U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. will create 42 more jobs at its Hopkinsville plant, which now employs 90 full-time workers. The company plans to build a new processing facility and add on to its existing plant there. Its brands include Copenhagen and Skoal.
Beshear said the investment will make a "significant economic impact" on the state.
"The company has found great success in the commonwealth for decades, and this expansion is further proof that Kentucky is a great place to grow a business," the governor said.
In recent weeks, however, Beshear has called tobacco use the single-biggest factor contributing to Kentucky's dismal overall health status. The state, known for producing and consuming large amounts of tobacco, has the worst or near-worst rates for smoking, cancer deaths, heart disease and high blood pressure.
The plant consumes large amounts of tobacco grown by Kentucky farmers for its smokeless products.
"We'll basically be taking these products from the field all the way through the manufacturing process," said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., the parent of U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.
The plant expansion was applauded by lawmakers representing Hopkinsville. Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield called U.S. Smokeless Tobacco "the kind of corporate citizen any Kentucky community would love to have." Democratic Rep. John Tilley said the investment would give the local economy a "welcome boost."
The state said the company could be eligible for up to $4.5 million in performance-based tax incentives.
The city and county where the plant is situated also contributed an incentive package of $1.4 million to help secure the project, according to the governor's office.
Meanwhile, Beshear's plan to revamp Kentucky's tax system includes proposed higher tax rates for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. He also touts legislation calling for a statewide smoking ban at workplaces and in public buildings.
Altria opposes any tobacco tax increases, Caldwell said.
Tobacco companies are focusing on cigarette alternatives such as snuff, chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes as tax hikes, smoking bans, health concerns and social stigma make the cigarette business tougher.
Though cigarettes get most of the attention, smokeless products such as chewing tobacco and snuff carry a host of health risks as well, said Ellen Hahn, director of the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy.
"Smokeless tobacco doesn't put out secondhand smoke," Hahn said. "But for the user, it's not harmless. It causes all kinds of problems."
The American Cancer Society says the harmful effects from use of smokeless tobacco products include oral, throat and esophageal cancer. It can result in nicotine addiction, which can lead to smoking, it said. And the smokeless products can lead to gum disease and tooth decay, it said.
The state's dental health woes also have gotten the governor's attention.
Last week, Beshear set out five-year goals of increasing adult dental visits by 10 percent and reducing the percentage of children with untreated dental decay by 25 percent.
Other goals include reducing Kentucky's cancer and cardiovascular deaths by 10 percent during the same period, and reducing the statewide smoking rate by 10 percent.