Smoking-ban advocates find southern Kentucky a hard sell

SOMERSET — Supporters of smoking bans in public places have had a good deal of success in Kentucky the past four years, except in one large swath of the state.

There are no laws against lighting up in restaurants and public places across southern Kentucky, a traditional tobacco-growing region where the political landscape is conservative with a shot of libertarian.

The push for smoke-free ordinances in the region appears to be growing, however.

Officials said there could be votes on the issue in Somerset, London, Bowling Green, Glasgow and Campbellsville in the next year or so.

Those efforts are part of a larger movement for smoke-free rules in Kentucky and the nation.

"We've seen interest all over the state," said Ellen Hahn, director of the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy and a professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Kentucky.

Since Lexington approved the first indoor smoking ban in Kentucky in 2003, smoke-free laws have been put in place covering 20 other cities or counties. In most cases, city or county lawmakers approved the ordinances; in others, local health departments adopted smoke-free rules by regulation, according to the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy.

Across the country, 593 municipalities ban smoking in workplaces, a number that has grown significantly since 2000, according to the advocacy group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

Smoke-free supporters have made less headway in southern Kentucky.

In August 2007, city commissioners in Bowling Green voted 3-2 against a ban on smoking indoors in public places.

In Pulaski County, a coalition asked magistrates to bar smoking in public places and workplaces, but the fiscal court has never voted on the measure, said Dr. Al Perkins, a pathologist active in the group Smoke-Free Pulaski County.

"What we found is, the fiscal court is a complete roadblock," Perkins said.

And at a meeting last June that turned contentious, the board of the 10-county Lake Cumberland District Health Department voted down a resolution in support of initiatives to eliminate smoking in public places in the area.

Then the board approved a motion limiting the ability of smoke-free advocates to bring up the measure again.

The fact that a health board wouldn't express support for measures to limit exposure to secondhand smoke surprised some people.

"How can a district health board not support this?" said Jack Keeney, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.

Under state law, a county health department that stands alone can approve a smoke-free law by regulation. Counties under a district health department board can't, however; the multicounty board would have to approve such a regulation for the entire district.

Cumberland County Judge-Executive Tim Hicks, who chaired the Lake Cumberland district health board at the time, said one reason he voted against the resolution was that a smoking ban would infringe on business owners' rights.

"I think it should be left up to the business owner whether he allows smoking in his business," Hicks said.

Eric Fitzer, chief executive officer of the company that owns several Reno's Roadhouse restaurants in Kentucky, said people can choose whether to come to a place that allows smoking.

"I just have a problem with someone shoving their brand of Americana down my throat," said Fitzer, a smoker.

For supporters of smoke-free laws, however, the issue is not one of property rights, but rather the health of workers and the public.

Businesses operate under a range of rules designed to protect workers and customers, such as safe food-handling regulations. Smoke-free laws are no different, advocates said.

"We don't say to businesses, 'You can put as much asbestos in your walls as you want,' or 'You can serve your food at any temperature,'" Hahn said.

"These are laws to keep our air safe," she said of smoke-free ordinances. "It's a worker safety issue."

Keeney said more than 80 percent of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce members who responded to a survey supported a smoke-free ordinance.

Many businesses and some government-owned buildings in southern Kentucky have gone smoke-free voluntarily. But only community-wide laws ensure that workers and customers are free from exposure to secondhand smoke in all public places, advocates say.

The dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke are well-documented. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke, which causes diseases such as cancer and premature death among non-smokers, according to information from the American Lung Association and the U.S. Surgeon General.

If they want to keep their jobs, many employees don't have a choice about whether to breathe secondhand smoke, said supporters of smoke-free laws.

"From a public-health perspective ... one of the most impactful things we could do is provide smoke-free environments for every worker," Hahn said.

In its 2004 ruling upholding Lexington's indoor smoking ban, the Kentucky Supreme Court said the government's power to promote and safeguard public health trumps individual rights.

Brian "Slim" Nash, a city commissioner in Bowling Green, said he once thought the government shouldn't get involved in imposing a smoking ban on businesses, but he changed his mind after more research.

"It was not understanding all the ramifications of secondhand smoke," Nash said of his former position.

Nash sponsored the call for a smoke-free ordinance and plans to push the proposal again, he said.

Fitzer, the Reno's Roadhouse executive, said he was concerned that an indoor smoking ban would hurt sales at some restaurants, his included.

Going to a restaurant isn't just about eating; there's an entertainment value, and some people like to smoke while they're out, he said.

"It will hinder sales," Fitzer said, particularly later in the evening.

A number of studies have found that smoke-free laws don't have an adverse economic effect on restaurants and bars, according to the American Lung Association.

A study in Lexington covering the first 14 months of the indoor-smoking ban there found that employment went up in restaurants and was unchanged at bars.

Some of the opposition to smoke-free laws in southern Kentucky is rooted in the area's longtime reliance on tobacco as a cash crop.

Tobacco's role in the agriculture economy has dwindled, but many people still think that any limit on tobacco is a slap at farmers.

"There's just still a lot of the people that feel like we're betraying the farmers by advocating no smoking in public places," said Campbellsville Mayor Brenda Allen.

Allen grew up on a farm but doesn't see it that way.

"It's not that we're trying to keep people from smoking" where other people wouldn't be exposed, Allen said. "We're trying to make sure that the air people breathe is clean."

Smoke-free laws help accomplish that, studies show.

In Letcher County, for instance, Hahn and other researchers measured indoor-air quality before and after a smoking ban took effect in July 2006.

Indoor air pollution fell 75 percent at the restaurants and other venues that complied with the law, the study found.

Banning smoking in public places, including workplaces, is an effective way to protect non-smokers because those are the places where many are likely to encounter secondhand smoke, according to the American Cancer Society.

Officials said they expect continued efforts to push for smoke-free laws in southern Kentucky, despite a lack of success so far.

"It'll come back and come back and come back," said Kevin DeFebbo, city manager in Bowling Green. "The anti-smokers firmly believe their position."