Keys to effective smoking bans

As it stands now, Kentucky officials have the same problem enacting smoking restrictions as habitual smokers have quitting the habit.

They don’t quite have the will to go the whole way.

As today’s Forum story by Cindy Schroeder reveals, the partial smoking ban Kenton County enacted four months ago has been only marginally effective.

So far 74 establishments, mostly bars, have been granted exemptions. No fines have been levied against businesses that don’t comply. And health advocates say some of the law’s provisions, like a split-shift distinction that allows smoking in establishments half-time, don’t adequately protect workers or customers.

In a word, the ban is tentative. Its opponents say they’ll try to repeal it when a new fiscal court takes office in three years.

Still Kenton County has made more progress than Campbell County, which repealed a partial ban before it took effect, and Boone County, which shied away from establishing one.

Banning smoking in Kentucky, which trails only North Carolina as a tobacco producer, was never going to be easy.

Its annual harvest earns Bluegrass growers more than $370 million. Public opinion on smoking bans is evenly split. And one in three Kentuckians is a smoker, the highest percentage in the nation.

But agricultural revenues, public debate and human habit haven’t kept 25 states from enacting comprehensive smoking bans. Ohio is one of them. Ten more states, including North Carolina, forbid smoking in some public venues.

Last spring the Centers for Disease Control predicted that by 2020 all 50 states will have smoking bans in effect.

Kentucky, one of the last holdouts, is the one that can least afford to wait.

It has the highest per capita lung cancer rate in the nation, the highest overall cancer rate and spends $1.5 billion each year on smoking-related illnesses.

Across the commonwealth, 31 communities have already “gotten it”, bravely - and often contentiously - enacting partial bans. They deserve credit for showing leadership on a critical public health issue. But the result is a patchwork of regulations, and inconsistency in interpretation and enforcement.

All Kentuckians deserve the right to be protected from secondhand smoke. And business owners trying to do the right thing and abide by local regulations need to know there will be penalties for scofflaws.

The state needs to speak with one voice on this issue. While Gov. Steve Beshear drags his feet, waiting until he perceives “consensus,” Senate President and Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams is championing a statewide ban.

It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the only way to make this thing work.

Ohio’s four-year experience with a statewide ban has been impressive if imperfect. The state has not taken the economic hit doomsayers predicted, bars and restaurants have not closed en masse and most important, smoke-free environments have quickly become the new normal for Ohioans.

The ban, along with support for quit-smoking efforts, is credited with gradually lowering the state’s smoking rate. Now only a fifth of Ohioans smoke.

But new resolve and vigilance are clearly called for. The state has chomped away at anti-smoking funds, the crucial counterpart to the smoking ban that will get people not only to stop smoking in public places but to stop altogether.

In 2008, then-Gov. Ted Strickland and the legislature diverted millions from the state’s tobacco settlement fund to deal with a budget deficit. In similar straits, Gov. John Kasich and state lawmakers cut funding for the state’s quit-smoking hotline and proposed cutting $1 million from enforcement funds, although that funding was restored.

Meanwhile,the state has only collected a third of fines owed to it, with $1.77 million outstanding. And fine collection rates have dropped from better than 80 percent in 2007 to roughly a third last year.

In a positive move, the state has for the first time moved to deny a liquor license to a business - Peg’s Pub in Evendale - with substantial unpaid smoking fines.

A law not aggressively enforced is little better than no law at all. Collecting those fines should counterbalance what it costs the state for enforcement.

Seriousness of purpose, clarity about regulations and consistency of enforcement are the backbone of smart anti-smoking legislation. States that have embraced those approaches are seeing reductions in childhood asthma rates and some cardiovascular problems. Experts say bringing down the cancer rate will take more time but should ultimately happen. Predictions of large economic losses haven’t happened.

It’s hard to see a downside. That’s why the time to protect citizens and workers from secondhand smoke is now.

By John Kasich

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