By a 2-1 vote, the Kentucky Court of Appeals has ruled an unelected county board of health can impose a smoking ban without the approval of the county fiscal court or any city councils or city commissions in a county. If it stands on appeal, the decision could greatly expand the number of counties in the state that restrict smoking in public. That would not bother us one bit except for how it is done.
Currently, countywide smoking restrictions are in place in 12 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. In counties like Boyd, cities like Ashland have approved ordinances to restrict public smoking, while the remainder of the county has let individual businesses and employers continue to establish their own rules about smoking.
The elected members of the fiscal courts in the 12 counties restricting smoking have done so by approving ordinances. That’s the way it should be. Restricting public smoking is so controversial in the state where tobacco was once the leading cash crop, that doing so should be done by the elected members of a county or city governing body who are accountable to the voters of the county or city.
However, in 2011, the appointed Bullitt County Board of Health approved a smoking ban in all public places, including restaurants, bars and some outside venues. However, the fiscal court and eight cities in the county opposed the ban and challenged the health board’s authority to restrict smoking in a lawsuit. The smoking restrictions were to take effect in September 2011, but enforcement of the restrictions has been delayed because of the lawsuit.
In its ruling, the court of appeals said state law gives health boards the authority to impose regulations or ordinances involving public health. We support restrictions on public smoking and wish more area cities and counties would follow the lead of the Ashland Board of City Commissioners in approving a restriction that has made dining in restaurants in Ashland much more pleasant and healthy.
Despite the threats of opponents of the Ashland ordinance to work to defeat those commissioners supporting the smoking restrictions, the ordinance had no noticeable impact the next time commissioners faced city voters. All were re-elected, and the smoking ban was not even an issue during the campaign.
That’s not surprising. With three out of every four Kentucky adults being nonsmokers, they far outnumber the minority who insist it is their right to puff away whenever and wherever they choose. And even many smokers say they prefer smoke-free dining.
While there is no question smoking is a health issue, we don’t think legislators ever intended the unelected members of boards of health to have the power to restrict smoking in public. Even if the Kentucky Supreme Court agrees with the appeals court when its ruling is appealed, as it surely will be, decisions on public smoking still should be left up to elected officials, not to appointed boards whose members most voters do not even know and have no way of influencing.