Still Burning: Smoking-ban Debate Returns to Jessamine During 2015 Legislative Session



Not for the first time, a smoke-free bill has been introduced in the legislature of a state with notoriously high smoking rates and low overall health rankings. While representatives in Frankfort debate a statewide ban, officials at the local level are searching for a balance between the desires of business owners and the health of the public.

The bill, HB 145, which is currently in the House health and welfare committee, proposes a ban on indoor smoking in businesses, places of employment and public places, as well as within 15 feet of entrances, operable windows and ventilation intakes of those places. The Kentucky General Assembly has considered similar bills in the past, but Kentucky is yet to join the 25 states and the District of Columbia that have enacted comprehensive restrictions on smoking.

While the adult smoking rate in Jessamine County remains 10 percentage points above the national average at 27 percent, local businesses and places of employment have become smoke-free for the most part. The Jessamine County Health Department found during its 2014 inspections that 94 percent of the facilities were nonsmoking.

In spite of the high percentage of local employers implementing their own smoke-free policies, health-department director Randy Gooch said a statewide mandate is still necessary.

“I think when we’re talking about a statewide smoke-free workplace regulation, that provides protection (from the negative health consequences of tobacco) for everybody in the state of Kentucky,” Gooch said. “And that’s what’s important to us for public health: It’s that everybody have that protection. We don’t want that protection just to be for a few … we want that to be for 100 percent of the population.”

While public health officials — and a growing majority of constituents in the U.S., Kentucky and Jessamine County — favor smoking bans, there is still stong support for the choice of business owners regarding their own policies, independent of a mandate.

County judge-executive David West said he’s torn between those two interests when he considers the issue from the county’s perspective.

“I have two different feelings,” West said. “Personally, being a non-smoker, I enjoy a non-smoking environment. Looking at it from a business point of view, it’s difficult for me to tell someone that they cannot conduct a legal business for the sake of something that’s legal. So, the health concerns of course are right in the middle of those two.”

Nicholasville mayor Pete Sutherland said business owners should be allowed to set their own policies and that the small number of businesses in Nicholasville that still allow smoking seem to indicate the issue has “kind of taken care of itself.”

“My position has been, in the past, that I feel like business owners and people that have their own business can make those decisions for themselves without government intervention,” Sutherland said.

A 2013 poll conducted by Asbury University found that a majority of Jessamine County residents favored a total or partial indoor smoking ban. And the 2014 Kentucky Health Issues Poll (KHIP) has seen a steady increase in support for statewide restrictions on indoor smoking from 48 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in last year’s poll.

Wilmore mayor Harold Rainwater said he was surprised the Wilmore City Council wasn’t in favor of a ban when it was brought up a few years ago because there aren’t any Wilmore businesses that currently allow smoking, but he said he understands desire to allow entrepreneurs to choose. However, in view of the devastating way smoking affects health, he is in favor of a ban.

“The only place that sells tobacco (in Wilmore) prohibits tobacco inside. So, he’s pretty consistent on that: While he wants the choice of selling it, he doesn’t want people to use it in his store,” Rainwater said. “I’ve kind of used him as my model — that you have a choice of doing that everywhere else, but not where it impacts other people.”

Gooch said the high percentage of local businesses with smoke-free policies has been in part a result of the health department’s work the last several years to encourage employers and business owners to adopt such polices. He said smoke-free workplaces benefit employers in ways they may not realize, from improved health and therefore productivity and reduced insurance costs, to the lack of added costs maintaining a building in which people smoke, such as increased cleaning or carpet-replacement needs.

“So I think that we’ve seen success in that. I think that we’ve probably reached a point where we’ve almost reached the majority of them we can reach,” Gooch said. “I think it’s very important for the state to look at establishing a smoke-free workplace policy.”

Gooch also cited the success of Fayette and Woodford counties, where he said local governments have been proactive in establishing local smoke-free ordinances and where it has been shown to reduce the adult smoking population in those areas and keeps kids from starting to smoke. Fayette County and Woodford County have adult smoking rates between 14 and 17 percent, compared to Jessamine County’s 27 percent, he said.

Gooch added that it’s important for people to let their legislators know what their preferences are with regard to smoke-free policies as they consider the bill in February.

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