Ruling: Elected officials must OK smoke-free laws

June 30, 2014 

  • At issue: June 20 Herald-Leader brief, "Bullitt smoking ban overturned"

Smoke-Free Kentucky is disappointed by the recent decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court reversing the lower court's ruling that the Bullitt County Board of Health had the authority to enact smoke-free regulation.

We congratulate the Bullitt County Board of Health for taking the initiative to protect their citizens from secondhand smoke exposure through a regulation passed in 2011, even though they were overruled.

The same powerful scientific evidence and need to protect public health that led the Bullitt County Board of Health to act should spur the Kentucky legislature and local governments across the state to enact strong smoke-free laws that protect everyone's right to breathe clean air.

The Supreme Court decision suggests, "It is far better for a man to go wrong in freedom than to go right in chains" under the condition "the harmful practice does not invade the well-being of others."

Secondhand smoke exposure seriously harms the well-being of others as it leads to heart disease, lung disease and several cancers in nonsmokers.

At the crux of the case is not whether secondhand smoke is harmful, but whether the Bullitt County Board of Health has the authority to regulate secondhand smoke exposure.

The court decision concludes the Board of Health in Bullitt County did not have an enabling state statute to grant it the authority to enact the regulation. Since board of health members are appointed, the court felt the structure is "constitutionally problematic in that it does not comport with traditional notions of representative government."

Smoke-Free Kentucky supports the government's authority to eliminate exposure to the toxic chemicals in secondhand smoke, and believes this critical workplace health and safety issue should be enacted at the state and local levels to save lives and reduce disease.

The court emphasizes the role of the boards of health is to prevent and contain epidemic and communicable diseases. There is no question that diseases resulting from secondhand smoke and smoking are at an epidemic level in Kentucky, a state that leads the nation in lung cancer and ranks among the top in most other chronic diseases related to tobacco smoke.

This decision adds to the pressure on the state legislature because future local progress from boards of health has been prohibited. Only state and local governments can change the course to protect more Kentuckians from secondhand smoke exposure, and we encourage leaders to meet the challenge by passing smoke-free laws.

James Sharp is government relations director of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Tonya Chang is advocacy director of the American Heart Association.

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