Smoking ban repeal ahead?

Four months after Kenton County became the first Northern Kentucky county to ban smoking inside most public establishments, the initial furor has died down, but neither side is satisfied.

Enforcement issues, exemptions and the lack of uniform rules with neighboring communities raise the question of whether a community can effectively ban smoking on its own. With Campbell and Boone counties allowing smoking and Ohio having a state ban, Kenton County’s ban has struggled to succeed and remains in the cross hairs of those opposed to it.

“Kenton County has what we consider a weak, or partial law,” said Ellen Hahn, an RN and a professor who directs the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy at the University of Kentucky. “The good news is more people are protected today than were four months ago. The bad news is there are still some people who are not protected.”

A leader of Northern Kentucky Choice - a group that says smoking restrictions infringe on the rights of businesses and property owners - says that organization will resume efforts to get Kenton County’s partial smoking ban repealed when elections for a new fiscal court take place about three years from now.

“I haven’t run any surveys, but some of the individual business owners I’ve talked to have said the smoking ban is having a negative impact on their bottom line,” said Ken Moellman Jr., a spokesman for Northern Kentucky Choice.

Moellman also said compliance with the required signage has been spotty, judging from what he’s observed while driving in the county.

With Kenton Fiscal Court deadlocked 2 to 2 on the smoking issue, Moellman says Northern Kentucky Choice’s only political option is to wait until the next county elections in 2014.

“There are already some plans in the works to try to get Kenton County’s smoking ban repealed a few years from now,” said Moellman, who prefers regulating smoking in public places strictly through signage. “This issue isn’t going to go away.”

Meanwhile, supporters of comprehensive smoke-free legislation say workers shouldn’t have to choose between their health and a paycheck.

Smoke-free Kentucky, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that says comprehensive, smoke-free laws are needed to protect employees and customers from the hazards of second-hand smoke, plans to continue lobbying for such laws in communities throughout the Commonwealth, in hopes of eventually getting a comprehensive smoke-free law for all of Kentucky, a state known for its strong tobacco legacy.

Thirty-one Kentucky communities have restricted smoking in public places since 2003, when Fayette County became the first to pass a law banning smoking in restaurants and other enclosed public spaces.

“Smoking is not only a health risk, it’s costing a lot of money,” Hahn said. “We spend over $1.7 billion a year in Kentucky to treat smoke-related diseases.”

Tristate public smoking laws are all over the map

Smoking in public places was banned by Ohio voters in 2006. Elsewhere in the Tristate, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels recently said support is growing in the Hoosier state for a statewide ban on smoking in public places.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study this spring that said it’s possible all workplaces, bars and restaurants in the country may be smoke-free by 2020. The report said Delaware was the first state to pass a comprehensive smoking ban in 2002. By the end of 2010, 25 other states followed the lead.

Others have passed less restrictive laws. Kentucky and Indiana are among the seven states that have no statewide restrictions in workplaces, bars and restaurants.

A Lexington lawmaker’s push to ban smoking in all of Kentucky’s indoor workplaces with at least one employee failed earlier this year when the bill was not acted on by the House Health & Welfare Committee. The measure is expected to be re-introduced in 2012.

“If more local communities adopt smoke-free laws, the state legislature is more likely to adopt a smoke-free law,” Hahn said. “It’s the same idea as the seat belt legislation. Local governments passed seat belt laws over time. Then there was more will to do something at the state level.”

Officials in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties initially considered comprehensive smoke-free legislation for Northern Kentucky’s public places, but they were unable to get consensus for a regional ordinance.

Boone County officials opted out of talks last summer. The outgoing Campbell Fiscal Court adopted comprehensive smoke-free legislation in December that banned smoking in places where the public is allowed. However, before that law could take effect, a newly-elected Fiscal Court repealed it.

In December, the outgoing Kenton Fiscal Court was unable to muster support for comprehensive smoke-free legislation, so it approved a compromise ordinance that took effect April 15 for some 5,500 public establishments.

Kenton County requires most public establishments, such as offices, churches, restaurants, bowling alleys, bingo halls and retail stores, to go smoke-free. However, private clubs and “drinking establishments” that meet certain requirements, including employing and serving customers over 18, can apply for an exemption. For the bar part of a restaurant, the bar has to be separate, with its own ventilation system and entrance, if smoking is allowed.

So far, nine warnings have been issued to offenders of Kenton County’s smoke-free ordinance, but no fines have been issued, according to the Northern Kentucky Health Department, which is charged with enforcing Kenton County’s smoke-free ordinance.

Under Kenton’s ordinance, a warning is issued to the business for the first offense. The second offense within a year brings a fine of $100 and a fine of $250 for each subsequent offense within the year.

People who smoke in an area where smoking is prohibited are subject to a $100 fine.

“All things considered, enforcement has gone quite smoothly,” said Dr. Lynne Saddler, director of the Northern Kentucky Health Department. “I think this can be attributed to strong efforts from our staff in advance of the ordinance and in its first few months. This included public education, clear messaging in our forms and website, and a common-sense approach in interactions with those falling under the ordinance’s requirements.”

After some initial confusion - especially over who qualified for exemptions - most public establishments were able to get the information they needed by contacting the health department, said Emily Gresham Wherle, spokeswoman for the Northern Kentucky Health Department. Last spring, a workshop to explain the new smoking restrictions was cancelled because of lack of interest.

However, both sides have questioned the effectiveness of Kenton County’s ordinance because of the number of exemptions granted. Of the 75 granted so far, five are for private clubs, and 70 are for “drinking establishments.” Of those, 63 are for establishments that employ and serve people over 18, three have a separate enclosed area for smoking, and four Covington businesses - the Anchor Grill, Willie’s Sports Cafe, Cock and Bull English Pub and Zazou Grill & Pub - are split-shift operations, meaning the establishments allow smoking half of the time and are smoke-free the other half. When smoking is permitted, only people older than 18 can be admitted.

“I guess the real trick is to try to figure out the economic impact on those businesses that were forced to change,” Moellman said.

Some businesses see change, others watching

Linda Kinsella, owner of the West Side Café in Newport, was a leader in last year’s fight against a comprehensive, indoor smoke-free ordinance for public places in that county. Since Kenton County’s partial smoking ban took effect, she says her business has increased.

“We picked up 20 to 25 customers a week from Covington, especially at night-time,” Kinsella said. “It was the same when Ohio’s smoking ban took effect. We picked up a few customers from Ohio, and the bars closer to the (Ohio) river picked up a lot more.”

Maggie Chasteen, a long-time cook/server at Covington Chili, said that establishment survived the Great Depression, but has seen its business “completely die down” since Kenton County’s compromise smoking ordinance took effect.

“Since Kenton County put its smoking law into effect, the majority of our customers have gone over to Campbell County,” Chasteen said. As an example, she said an 84-year-old customer who used to stop by Covington Chili “every other day to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee” now stops by once a month.

At Super Bowl of Erlanger, general manager Michele Colangelo is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Our business was down this summer, but I think that’s because of the economy,” Colangelo said. “I meet with (owners of) bowling centers in other counties once a month, and they all say that business is down overall.”

Colangelo initially considered allowing smoking in part of her 64-lane bowling alley in Erlanger, but decided against it because the required renovations “wouldn’t be cost effective.”

She said that she’s booked four special events through next March, and added that many of her bowlers who were critical of the smoking restrictions before they took effect, now simply go outside and smoke by the urns she placed near Super Bowl’s entrances.

Colangelo said the true test will come in September, when representatives of bowling leagues must tell her whether they plan to return.

“Only one league has definitely stated that they won’t be back because of the smoking ban,” she said.

Hahn and advocates of comprehensive smoke-free legislation say air quality research in multiple communities by the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy has shown split shift smoking restrictions such as Kenton County allows, don’t protect the health of workers and customers because it can take one to two days to rid an indoor space of secondhand smoke.

Kenton County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann, the lone returnee from the previous fiscal court, said that he introduced the compromise smoking ordinance when it became apparent there weren’t enough votes on fiscal court to adopt comprehensive smoke-free legislation. He said he’s received one phone call and one email “on the negative side” and has had five to seven positive emails and close to 100 people who’ve approached him to express support for the ordinance that was ultimately adopted.

“As I said (in December), I’d rather have something rather than nothing,” Knochelmann said. “This is a reasonable compromise that will protect more employees and customers.”

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