Politics of smoking


Newcomers to Franklin County may wonder why Fiscal Court seems a little wishy-washy about enacting a countywide ban on smoking in buildings open to the public. It’s been more than five years since the City of Frankfort adopted such an ordinance and few problems have resulted. The air quality in the city’s public places has dramatically improved even though some business owners quietly continue to let smokers light up. There’s no smoking police to enforce 100 percent compliance.
Longtime residents understand that county politicians have been slow to follow the city’s lead because county government has a tradition of upholding individual liberties. For decades the county refused even to approve countywide zoning for fear it might be seen as an infringement on private property rights. When magistrates finally did come around, they took pains to make county zoning laws less restrictive than the city’s.
But things change in odd ways. Because of Fiscal Court’s laissez-faire approach to land-use control, Franklin County inexorably became more suburban and less rural. The increasing population density led to more people demanding more protection from obnoxious neighbors. The end product of less regulation is more regulation.
In the case of smoking regulation, County Judge-Executive Ted Collins said he’s simply expanding on the court’s decision Friday to implement a “Healty Eating Policy” that puts more healthful snacks in vending machines at county government offices. It only made sense, he explained, to protect the public from secondhand smoke as well.
The judge may have convinced himself but we suspect the rise of smoking legislation has less to do with public health awareness than with changing demographics – much like the changes that make zoning more palatable to county residents. Because the population has evolved from one with smokers in the majority to one in which non-smokers comprise a new majority, there’s more political support for laws that enable the majority to enjoy a smoke-free environment.
Still, county leaders have an ingrained urge to maintain their jurisdiction as a refuge from city-style regulations, if only symbolically. For Collins, this means a smoking ban that exempts business places open only to people 21 and older – bars, mostly. That’s the version County Attorney Rick Sparks is supposed to have ready for a first reading when Fiscal Court meets April 12.
Magistrate Jill Robinson, whose district includes part of the city, said the ban should include bars. She’s right. Some drinkers still see alcohol and nicotine as natural companions, but nowadays, even health nuts advocate moderate alcohol consumption; they’d probably prefer to visit smoke-free taverns. If the county must make an exception, it ought to be for specialty tobacco shops which only smokers are likely to patronize.
Whatever Fiscal Court eventually decides on this issue, it has already gone where county leaders once never dreamed of going, which prompted Magistrate Don Sturgeon – who’s in favor of the smoking ban – to comment, “We keep trying to make the county the city. People move to the county to get away from the city restrictions.”
Ironically, the county’s  wide-open growth policies helped engender city ways where cow pastures predominated not so long ago. A Fiscal Court formerly beholden to independent tobacco farmers and wannabe land barons now must answer to a more suburbanized constituency with rather different expectations of what government ought to be doing.

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