Franklin County Judge-Executive Ted Collins made the right decision last week in reversing his earlier plan that would have exempted bars from the proposed countywide ban on smoking in buildings open to the public.
Collins was supported in his change of heart by health groups appearing at the Fiscal Court meeting to urge no special treatment for business places open only to patrons 21 or older. They said exemptions might create legal difficulties for the countywide smoking ban.
The proposition that “adults-only” businesses should be allowed to prohibit or permit smoking at their own discretion is not new, having been rejected in 2006 when the Frankfort City Commission passed its ban. A number of bar owners immediately took the city to court, arguing they’d suffered a drastic loss of business in the first days after the law took effect. Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate granted a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the ordinance while he pondered the legal ramifications. But the judge lifted his order within two weeks. While acknowledging that some customers of city bars might have bolted to county establishments where smoking was still allowed, he said public health outweighed commercial considerations.
Six months later, public health authorities and city officials declared the new law successful, even though some business concerns continued looking the other way when their customers or employees lit up. Enforcement of the smoking law is not a priority for city police, who can cite non-compliant businesses if citizens complain.
Now Fiscal Court, which plans to vote on its smoking ban next month, is headed down the same path, with a key difference that accentuates just how far smoking regulation has come over the past six years. Several supporters of the proposed law addressed magistrates last week but, to Collins’ surprise, no one spoke against the ordinance.
Fiscal Court does have dissent within its ranks, however. Magistrate Phillip Kring said he supports public smoking bans, in general, but believes people over 21 should decide on their own whether to patronize smoking establishments.
County Attorney Rick Sparks, who drafted the original ordinance with the bar exemption, agreed. He said his version was designed to safeguard individual choice, including the choice to stay out of smoky bars.
Where it falls short is in failing to acknowledge persons who do want to go to bars but don’t want to breathe polluted air.
Smoking laws may provide cover to some owners who prefer smoke-free operations but don’t want to alienate loyal customers. A legal ban makes government the heavy and creates a more level playing field for all businesses.
There have always been regulation haters who insisted the government should keep its nose out of private business. Half a century ago, some of them put little signs in their windows stating they had the “right to refuse service to anyone,” meaning they had no intention of serving anyone but white people. That declaration that wouldn’t get far today.
Free enterprise means law-abiding concerns can sell legal products with the expectation, though not the certainty, of earning a profit on them. It does not mean absolute freedom from regulation. Bars obviously have to comply with alcoholic beverage control laws and they also should be subject to any smoking laws the pertinent jurisdiction chooses to enact for the public good.