Health & Medicine

Bourbon County's tobacco heritage thwarts proponents of smoking ban

A mural  depicting the tobacco  harvest has been in the rotunda of the  Bourbon County  Courthouse in Paris for more than 100 years.
A mural depicting the tobacco harvest has been in the rotunda of the Bourbon County Courthouse in Paris for more than 100 years. Herald-Leader

PARIS — A mural showing a tobacco harvest has been on display high in the second-floor rotunda of the Bourbon County Courthouse for more than 100 years.

"Burley put me through school," Judge-Executive Donnie Foley likes to say. "Burley built this courthouse, burley built the schools, burley put food on the table."

And because of that, he said, he can't imagine a day when Bourbon County goes smoke-free.

Tobacco is part of the culture. "Just about every county farm raised some amount of tobacco," said Foley, who along with the Bourbon Fiscal Court resists efforts to enact a smoking ban.

Foley, 61, remembers when there were five tobacco warehouses in the county, and sale days were equal parts party and business. The Chamber of Commerce brought out free coffee, doughnuts and ham sandwiches.

In 1990, Bourbon County led the state in tobacco production, and it remains one of the top counties for burley production.

In Bourbon County, as in most of Kentucky, most tobacco is raised on small farms run by families whose lives turn on the bounty or bust of the harvest.

And as those farm families fared, so did the county. Foley, a Bourbon native and a graduate of Bourbon County High School, said every business that thrived did so indirectly because of tobacco.

So, 50 years after the U.S. surgeon general issued a report linking smoking cigarettes to a host of serious illnesses, 10 years after Lexington enacted Kentucky's first smoking ban, and after years of work by a location smoke-free coalition, Foley is firm.

Business owners have a right to let people smoke, he says.

"Government," said Foley, who has held office since 1999 and has a "Git-R-Done" sign hanging over the door of his courthouse office, "tries to tell people too much what to do."

At an April political forum at Bourbon County High School, cigarette butts lined the walkway to the auditorium, although the campus is designated smoke-free. Onstage, candidates for city council and magistrate were asked whether they would support a smoking ban. Some said they had fathers or sisters who were longtime smokers who had cancer, most said they didn't smoke, and a few said they weren't sure smoking was really a health risk.

Of 18 candidates, only one said he would support a smoking ban. He didn't win in last week's primary election.

Magistrate Jimmy Mason, a farmer, spoke for the majority when he told the audience he didn't know who responded to a survey that found 65 percent of Bourbon County residents favored a smoke-free workplace. He didn't get a call to weigh in on the issue, he said. He doesn't know anybody who did.

Besides, he said, "we've got a lot of bigger problems than cigarettes."

A few people in the audience, which had been told to remain quiet during the questions, clapped in agreement.

Reality check

Bourbon County is not the exception. Since the first workplace smoking ban in Fayette County 10 years ago, 12 of Kentucky's 120 counties and 26 cities have enacted some type of smoke-free ordinance. In Kentucky, 34 percent of the population is protected by smoke-free laws. Almost all Kentucky cities with bans are county seats, leaving most of rural Kentucky without smoking regulations. Efforts to enact a statewide ordinance have failed in the legislature.

Across the country, about half the population lives in places with smoke-free rules, said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the nonprofit Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. She said the science on the dangers of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke was clear, as were the benefits of smoke-free laws. Kids who grow up where smoking is banned in public places are less likely to smoke, she said. People tend to quit when towns go smoke-free.

Still, Hallett said, there continued to be resistance to smoking bans, especially in the South. "The reality," she said, "is that this is a crisis."

Smoking is the single biggest cause of preventable illness in the United States, said Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary of health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Just about every family in the country has wrestled with someone suffering" from being addicted to tobacco or health problems associated with secondhand smoke, Koh said. But because the campaign against smoking has gone on for decades, he said, there was some assumption that the smoking problem had been brought under control.

He said smoking rates have gone down, but cigarette use kills more than 480,000 Americans each year, including nonsmokers. Nearly 34,000 die each year of heart disease, and more than 7,300 die of lung cancer from exposure to secondhand smoke.

In addition to having the highest rate of smokers in the country, Kentucky has the highest number of cancer deaths a year: 9,400.

Even after decades of scientific research on the dangers of smoking, and rising public awareness about the hazards, Hallett said, there are some people who just don't want to hear about the dangers of smoking.

"It is a sad kind of reality check that logic and science aren't necessarily going to win the day," she said.

Foley, for one, is not completely convinced of the health hazards of smoking or secondhand smoke.

"Bourbon County is a high cancer county," said Foley, a nonsmoker. But "it's hard to say what causes cancer. Some people live to be 90 who've smoked all their life. It could be the water, the air you breathe; there are a lot of factors."

Fighting for a ban

The first public rumblings about eliminating smoking in the workplace began in Bourbon County in 2011. A group of local activists started with a public forum, hoping it would lead to an ordinance.

Cyndi Steele, health coordinator for the Bourbon County Health Department, said the first goal was to get smoking banned in Paris city offices. That proved to be pretty easy.

The county offices and courthouse have proved to be a much bigger challenge. Steele and a handful of folks representing the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Bourbon County worked on the issue for months, but Bourbon County Fiscal Court — Foley and seven magistrates — wouldn't budge.

For 18 months, Steele and Phyllis Robinson sat through the fiscal court's twice-weekly meetings. Sometimes the two women listened. Sometimes they'd speak about the dangers of secondhand smoke. Sometimes they brought in guest speakers, including Mike Scanlon, CEO of Thomas & King, a restaurant group based in Lexington, to discuss the benefits of a smoke-free workplace.

Robinson said it was clear the fiscal court wasn't interested.

"They weren't so rude that they'd take their cellphones out," she said, "but they got to where they wouldn't even look at us."

But their persistence hasn't gone unnoticed. Foley said he was familiar with Steele and Robinson. "They talk to me about it continually," he said of a smoking ban. "Cyndi is up on my back."

Mason, the county magistrate, refers to Steele mockingly as "my girlfriend."

Steele contended that fiscal court members waited until the county fair was underway, a time they knew she would be involved with showing her goats and working at a petting zoo, to call for a vote on the ordinance. She said they wanted to vote when she wouldn't be there to witness it.

She heard about it at the last minute and went to the meeting. The elected officials, she said, were so flustered that they decided not to consider two motions on the ballot: a ban in the unincorporated county and a ban in all county buildings.

Instead, they voted on a proposal to eliminate smoking in the courthouse. The proposal ended in a tie, so it didn't pass. After that, Robinson said, a magistrate told her there was no need for her to come to any more meetings.

The courthouse ban took effect only after a resident wrote to county officials, with support of the coalition, to say the county could be in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Steele said the woman had asthma and couldn't do business in the courthouse without having difficulty breathing.

Foley doesn't mention the ADA when talking about the smoking ban, but he said making the courthouse smoke-free was the right decision. People have no choice but to come to the courthouse to pay taxes, renew car tags and perform other required tasks.

But private businesses are another matter, he said. People may choose not to do business with or work in places where smoking is allowed.


Foley said he didn't recall the fiscal court ever voting on a ban, during the county fair or any other time. He later said they might have voted, but it certainly didn't pass. And, he said, it won't.

Tobacco is too important to the economy of Bourbon County to curtail smoking, he said. The tax revenue is substantial, Foley said, although he couldn't cite figures. (According to the most recent data available, $7.8 million worth of tobacco was sold in 2007. That's down from $9.6 million in 2002.)

Because the cities of Paris, North Middletown and Millersburg would each have to enact their own workplace bans, a county ban would have little effect. Only a handful of small stores would be covered, he said, and it's just not what people want.

"A lot of people don't like government telling them how to run their business; they feel like they ought to have a say," he said.

Bourbon County might go smoke-free, but it will be because individuals decide to do it, not because the government mandates it, he said.

Teens get involved

Steele said the coalition initially followed the model that was successful in Fayette County: Present the science and health concerns, and the ordinance would follow.

But as efforts stalled, the coalition engaged a group of high school students called Students Making A Change in Our Communities. They call themselves SMACK.

The teens have met with their peers, younger kids, business leaders and elected officials. They've written poetry and produced a play about not smoking and the importance of a smoke-free workplace. They organized the candidates' forum, where Mason said there were bigger issues to tackle.

The teens' efforts have been recognized on a national level by Tobacco Free Kids.

"Sometimes kids can be way more persuasive than adults," said Amy Barkley, a director for the nonprofit group.

She said those in the coming generation don't want to choose between their health and a paycheck. They can make "a compelling argument that secondhand smoke is not just an annoyance; it's dangerous."

Although she understands the importance of farming in Kentucky, she doesn't have much patience for the argument that a tobacco-growing heritage excludes a smoke-free future.

"I just get really tired of us using that as an excuse not to act," she said.

Tyler Boyle, president of SMACK, wore a suit and tie as he presided over a stage crowded with local candidates during the forum.

Several candidates joined Mason in questioning the validity of the survey Tyler used as the basis of the question asked of the candidates about a smoking ban.

He was surprised that adults called him out on the survey. But he was more puzzled by the widespread opinion that government shouldn't be involved in the issue of smoking in the workplace.

"A lot of them said, 'No government intervention' but they are a part of government" or want to get elected to serve in the government, he said. "Why are they getting involved if they don't want to make a difference?"

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader