Herald-Leader Editorial

Blowing smoke about the smoking ban

Property-rights argument illegitimate

March 15, 2013 

Standing up for business owners' rights is a lot more respectable than standing up for lung cancer and stillbirths.

So the Kentucky Farm Bureau and others wielded the property-rights argument to defeat a statewide smoke-free law in this legislative session.

It's nothing new, of course, for the Farm Bureau to put the tobacco industry's interests ahead of Kentuckians' health.

Heck, it's nothing new for the legislature to put the tobacco industry's interests ahead of Kentuckians' health.

The Farm Bureau is entitled to its opinions.

But lawmakers should know that nothing in the U.S. Constitution, the Kentucky Constitution or a century of legal precedent supports the notion that smoke-free laws violate the rights of business or property owners.

On the contrary, courts, including the Kentucky Supreme Court, have said repeatedly that governments have a duty to protect public health and that controlling secondhand smoke is a reasonable exercise of that duty.

In upholding smoke-free Lexington, the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2004 specifically said the smoking ban did not improperly infringe on property rights.

Also, federal and state laws and a century of case law entitle workers to conditions that do not pose serious harm to their health.

We can at least be glad that the debate in Kentucky has moved beyond disputing that tobacco use harms human health.

But you don't have to be puffing to be hurt. Secondhand smoke poses serious harm to nearby non-smokers — from increasing the chances of lung cancer and heart attack to stillbirth and birth defects when pregnant women work in smoky conditions.

Despite tobacco's relative decline, it's still a big crop in Kentucky. And Kentuckians still pay a high price for the long economic addiction.

We have the nation's highest adult smoking rate, highest youth smoking rate and highest rate of lung cancer. Most of Kentucky's other indicators of chronic poor health are tied directly or indirectly to smoking.

The claim that banning smoking in enclosed public spaces, where people work every day, would be anti-business or bad for the economy is ridiculous. The enormous costs of smoking are a crushing economic burden on Kentucky.

That's why the state Chamber of Commerce has backed a smoking ban for the last three sessions.

The chamber says that smoking takes an annual toll of $3.8 billion on Kentucky's economy through medical costs and lost productivity.

This year's session was the third in which a statewide smoke-free law failed to get a vote in either chamber, despite bipartisan support.

Everyone, including the sponsor, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, acknowledges it could be a long haul in Kentucky's tobacco-friendly legislature, where the most innocuous bills can take years to enact.

Local laws already protect about one third of Kentuckians from secondhand smoke. Public health advocates should redouble their efforts in places that have yet to go smoke-free, while keeping the pressure on Frankfort.

Meanwhile, let's all be clear about what's at stake: When lobbyists and lawmakers stand against smoke-free air, they're standing up for death, disease and economic decline.

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