Ky. city does unthinkable by passing ban on smoking

Lexington's new law is first in state known for its fields of tobacco

April 28, 2004|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Here in the heart of tobacco country, where farmers have nurtured fields of rich burley leaf since the 1700s, Lexington has done the unthinkable: Banned smoking.

Karl Evans sat on a stool at Nicholson's Cigar Bar and stared at the clock, grimacing as the minute hand ticked toward 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Teeth clamped down on a Marlboro cigarette, he took a deep, determined draw.

In just under an hour, he would have to stub it out or be in violation of a new local ordinance banning smoking. Lexington's law, which prohibits lighting up in any enclosed public space, marks the first time that smoking has been illegal anywhere in the state of Kentucky.

That means no more smoking in restaurants and bars here - or in malls, hotels or office buildings.

"It's just ridiculous. We're in Kentucky. We drink Kentucky bourbon, eat Kentucky fried chicken and smoke Kentucky tobacco," said Evans, 41, a truck driver who has lived in Lexington for three decades. "Not being able to smoke in a bar is like not being able to drink bourbon at the Derby."

But the law reflects a new reality in Kentucky. The changing economic landscape has created a work force that is slowly leaving the tobacco farms to work in high-tech and other industries.

And social attitudes about smoking have begun to bend, though 30 percent of adults and 37 percent of high school students here - compared with 23 percent of adults and 28 percent of students nationwide - say they regularly light up, according to a federal study.

"Ten years ago, I would have been laughed out of my job if I even mentioned proposing an anti-smoking ban," said Dr. Melinda Rowe, Fayette County's commissioner of health. It was Rowe's department that in 2002 began a campaign to curtail youth smoking.

That led the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council , the political body for the joint city-county government, to pass an ordinance early last year banning not just smoking but related items such as ashtrays and matchbooks.

A coalition of restaurant and bar owners filed suit to overturn the law.

On Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court, in a 6-1 ruling, upheld the ordinance and said the city had acted appropriately to "promote and safeguard public health." The court struck the language that made ashtrays and matchbooks illegal.

As of yesterday, business owners here became responsible for stopping their customers from smoking, said Stephen F. Harris, the health department's consumer protection director. "They must tell their customers to not smoke. If the customer continues to smoke, they must tell them to leave," Harris said.

Fines for ignoring the law range from $100 for a first offense to $500 for the third and subsequent violations .

Many businesses tried to nudge their customers toward a smoke-free existence by getting rid of their ashtrays and matches in advance.

"It's just like California," Carl Jackson, a Chicago engineer in town for a convention, complained as he wandered through the lobby bar at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in search of matches. All he found were small notices on each table: "No smoking please."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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