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'The shot heard round the world': Smoke-free advocates remember Lexington's smoking ban battle 20 years later

* HOLD FOR STORY * Once it stored tobacco, now this 100 year old barn owned by former tobacco farmer Michael Vaughn now holds rabbits and sheep and displays a message for Kentuckians to quit smoking, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, in Kevil, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Timothy D. Easley/AP
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* HOLD FOR STORY * Once it stored tobacco, now this 100 year old barn owned by former tobacco farmer Michael Vaughn now holds rabbits and sheep and displays a message for Kentuckians to quit smoking, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, in Kevil, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

It wasn't an easy sell at the time, but the city of Lexington is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the passage of its historic citywide anti-smoking ordinance.

The year is 2003. Movie audiences are busy Finding Nemo. The White Stripes just dropped a little ditty called Seven Nation Army. And a young, very green radio reporters — yours truly — is out covering his first big assignment: Lexington's smoke-free ordinance.

Though it barely registers a ripple of dissent nowadays, at the time, Lexington voting to become the first smoke-free city in the Midwest or Southern region of the country raised plenty of eyebrows.

"The Americans for Non-Smokers' Rights Foundation calls it the shot heard round the world. Because they said the the tobacco industry is probably on a beach somewhere saying 'Goodness, what just happened?'" Dr. Ellen Hahn recalls.

And the University of Kentucky College of Nursing professor should know. She helped lead the charge that’s now being celebrated by the city as a turning point.

The smoke-free ordinance took public debates, a court battle, and lots of getting used to for many in Lexington. While business owners worried about losing customers and tobacco farmers wondered about the future of their crops, Hahn was among the health advocates who convinced Lexington’s council to enact the ordinance. And she says the health data since continues to bolster her argument.

"We have fewer cases of new lung cancer diagnosed here, fewer asthma attacks, fewer hospitalizations for emphysema," she says, rolling off a list of indicators researched by her team.

The move also got the ball rolling in other Kentucky communities too, 57 to be exact. But despite the cultural shift, Hahn says she doesn’t foresee a strong statewide law becoming a reality any time soon.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.