Lexington smoking ban also snuffed fears


Ten years ago, Lexington did what would have been unthinkable a few years before. The city that once billed itself as the "world's largest burley tobacco market" put smokers outside.

On July 1, 2003, by a vote of 11-3, the Urban County Council enacted Kentucky's first public smoking ban.

The smoke-free ordinance had to withstand a trip to the state Supreme Court and a pre-emption move in the legislature.

But when it finally took effect in April 2004, the benefits were quick and dramatic.

Nicotine hair levels, a measure of exposure to toxic secondhand smoke, declined by 56 percent among bar and restaurant workers. Lexington had 22 percent fewer emergency room visits for asthma in the first 32 months.

Lexington's smoking rate has dropped from 26 percent to 17.5 percent; that's 16,500 fewer smokers, yielding health care savings of $21 million a year, according to the University of Kentucky's Tobacco Policy Research Program.

"There is nothing quite as cost effective as smoke-free policies," says Ellen Hahn, a UK nursing professor and director of the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy. "We predict a 32 percent decline in smoking rates if Kentucky were to go smoke-free. That would save billions in health care costs and reduce premature death and suffering from the chronic diseases that plague Kentucky."

Lexington led the way for Louisville and 20 other municipalities to enact protections against secondhand smoke. A third of the state's population now lives under the smoke-free umbrella.

The 10th anniversary of Lexington's bold move to a healthier future should be celebrated for all those reasons — and one more: None of the doomsday predictions came true.

That's worth pondering as many Kentuckians fear the economic harm that will come from upheaval in the energy and coal industries.

Lexington's restaurant and bar owners — from humble cafes to the finest dining establishments — warned that their businesses would suffer and maybe go under without ashtrays and the people who use them.

Tourists and conventions would shun us; wealthy foreigners buying horses would no longer dine out or leave big tips; ordinary residents would take their kids and drive to Winchester or Nicholasville to grab a burger.

Our favorite dire prophesy was that downtown's comeback would be snuffed. Just the opposite came true.

Lexington's restaurant and bar scene and downtown nightlife are far richer than 10 years ago. Proving that unintended consequences don't have to be bad, the ban on indoor smoking produced sidewalk dining and socializing that probably did more to enliven downtown than any consultant's idea yet.

Granted, a smoking ban's disruption is minor compared with the transitions coming to the energy industry. But the ingenuity of Kentuckians, their ability to adapt to change and prosper from it, is no greater in Lexington than anywhere else.

It once was an article of faith that tobacco would always be king in Kentucky, yet tobacco declined and agriculture has thrived.

Lexington's smoke-free experience teaches that with some leadership and imagination, change can be a good thing.