Other towns in the region that have passed similar bans include Paintsville, the seat of Johnson County. In Paintsville it’s illegal to smoke in restaurants, and though he wasn’t mayor when the ordinance was passed, Mayor Bob Porter said it hasn’t caused much trouble for his city.
Mayor Porter didn’t express an opinion on his city’s ban, and said he doesn’t criticize any city or county that chooses not to pass a similar law. But he also said he believes many of his town’s residents agree with the ban and it probably makes for a more comfortable environment for those who don’t smoke to enjoy a meal in Paintsville.
“I think a majority of the people in Paintsville favor it,” Mayor Porter said. “I think, personally, it’s not a large issue.”
Although several towns already have smoking bans in place, convincing local governments to approve them is never an easy task. Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble told the Herald that a ban for Perry County probably isn’t in the cards anytime soon, and Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman has in the past expressed an opposition to approving a similar ban for the city limits of Hazard. According to Jim Waters, vice president of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute in Bowling Green, opposition to government imposed smoking bans in private establishments such as restaurants is well placed.
“The major problem with smoking bans is that they threaten very important constitutionally protected rights, and that is the right to private property,” said Waters. “Another reason that I so oppose smoking bans is that businesses are already going smoke free voluntarily. They don’t need government to tell them how to run their businesses.”
Waters, who doesn’t smoke, noted that smoking tobacco is still a legal activity, and as long as that’s the case government shouldn’t attempt to tell private property owners when and where they can allow smoking on their property.
Waters added that he agrees smoking should not be allowed in publicly owned places where people must go, such as courthouses and clerks’ offices, but he thinks the free market is all the regulation that’s needed to control smoking in privately owned venus.
“If enough people choose not to go to a restaurant that allows smoking, that they feel a threat to their health, the marketplace will force that restaurant owner to do the right thing and get rid of smoking,” he said.
But banning smoking in places where the public meets is an important health issue, especially for children, and one that shouldn’t be ignored, said Dr. Lyle Snider, a Hazard resident and regional public health epidemiologist for the Big Sandy Region. Snider said children usually don’t have a choice about what restaurant they eat at, and can be exposed to secondhand smoke at those businesses.
“Adults can make a decision one way or the other about that, but for children, they’re not not going to go into a restaurant because people are smoking there,” he said. “It’s really sad to expose children to those harmful effects.”
Secondhand smoke, which is the smoke released from the end of a burning cigarette, is known to contain more than 4,000 chemicals, according to the World Health Organization, of which more than 50 are known to cause cancer.
Despite the governmental opposition to a smoking ban in Perry County, there does seem to be support for such a ban from the community. According to a poll conducted in October 2009 and released by the Breathe Easy: Perry County Partnership Coalition in February, 62 percent of those polled in Perry County believe there should be a smoking ban in place in Perry County, and over 82 percent believe secondhand smoke is a “serious or moderate” health risk.
Smoking bans work, according to proponents who point to a news report by ABC affiliate WBKO in 2006. According to that report, smoking prevalence in Lexington dropped by 8 percent following the passage of a 2004 ordinance banning smoking at indoor facilities.
But smoking bans could be a slippery slope and could potentially allow the government to infringe on other rights, said Waters, adding that supporters of these types of bans should pay closer attention to the Constitution.
“They could be looking at it upside down,” said Waters, later noting that “it’s outrageous that they would ignore some of their most important rights to accomplish their agenda.”
Ultimately, said Waters, if people want to lower smoking rates they should turn to education rather than forceful government intervention. He said a simple billboard campaign showing a healthy lung beside a smoker’s lung could do much to ward off new smokers.
“I am for education,” he said. “It is much more effective and important in this smoking battle than government mandates. Like billboard commercials, why don’t we put some money into that? It will be much more effective. People can make choices if they see the actual effects of smoking.”
Could taxes play a role?
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear visited Hazard in December 2008, pitching his plan to reduce the state deficit by, in part, increasing the state tax on cigarettes to 60 cents per pack. At the time, Beshear said the tax could raise an additional $145 million in the initial fiscal year. And now, nearly two years later, the state’s budget woes continue, leaving some to advocate for an even higher tax. Others still say an increased tax could also have a positive effect on the high smoking rates in Kentucky as well.
“That is one of the most important things that we can do to support our children is to raise the tobacco tax,” said Dr. Snider.
Snider noted that despite the tax increase approved by the General Assembly in 2009, Kentucky’s cigarette tax is still well below many other states, and a $1 per pack raise would only place Kentucky in about the middle of the statistical pack in terms of cost.
At present, only nine other states charge a lower rate of tax on a pack of cigarettes than Kentucky, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. New York levies the highest state tax of $4.35 per pack. Missouri, on the other hand, levies the lowest tax at only 17 cents per pack.
An increased tax “would reduce the number of kids that start smoking,” because they usually don’t have the money to afford higher cost tobacco, Snider argued.
But taxes in Kentucky are already high enough, according to Waters, who said higher taxes may reduce smoking rates, but they will not replenish the state’s coffers.
“These politicians who believe that they can balance the state budget on the backs of Kentucky smokers are ideologically challenged,” he said, adding that if less people smoke, then state revenues go down and the budget situation gets worse.