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Smoking Ban Opponents Look Back

Josh James

While advocates have much to cheer about 10 years on from the smoking ban, WUKY revisits some of the voices who spoke out against the law.

It’s a Thursday afternoon at Lynagh’s Irish Pub & Grill and the crowd is concentrated at the bar. Manager Brett Wilson is one of the few employees who was around in 2004 when the new ordinance prohibiting smoking in public buildings became a reality.

The effect, Wilson says, was immediate and dramatic – with some patrons testing the limits of the new law like high schoolers sneaking cigarettes when the teachers weren’t looking…

"Yeah, they were trying to sneak into the bathrooms, just to buck the system is all it was. So yeah, it was a big deal. And a lot of them didn't come out on principle for awhile. I don't know exact numbers, but I do remember the crowds being a lot lighter," he recalls.

And they stayed lighter for the better part of a year.

"It was rather huge because we had a huge smoking crowd, so when that hit everybody went on strike. It hurt business pretty much right off the bat," Wilson says. 

And while the pushback was quickly felt at the cash register, he remembers the complaints really ramping up when winter weather crept in and smokers found themselves literally out in the cold.  

As for Lynagh’s staff, opinions on the ban were – predictably – mixed. But Wilson recalls even the non-smokers facing a dilemma.

"The only thing that they liked about it was it didn't smell like smoke. However, they would much rather smell like smoke and make the money that was being lost," he says.

But as years have passed, the worst predictions – that the ban would all but kill bar business in Lexington – now appear overblown. Though Lynagh’s hasn’t seen its receipts fully return to where they were pre-ban, Wilson doubts that has much to do with the ordinance.

"It's the influx of different bars in the area. The campus now is flooded. Limestone has obviously turned into one big strip... things like that. Not so much because of the smokers," Wilson says.

But across town, at Martin’s Cigar Shop, the years have hardly snuffed out the controversy surrounding the ban. That’s despite an exemption for businesses that earn at least three-fourths of their income from tobacco products.  

"Yeah, we've continued to smoke in here. Rightfully so. That they would say you can't smoke in a cigar shop. That's like you can't eat in a restaurant," owner Charlie Martin says.

Today, Martin is wearing a shirt that reads: “When did ‘by the people, for the people,’ become ‘screw the people.’”  It’s that sentiment that, along with Martin’s passionate opposition to the anti-smoking law, prompted him to make an independent run for mayor in 2006.

And while his opinion is unchanged, Martin admits anti-smoking advocates appear to be winning the day with politically. And though smoking has been declining, he says it's not a habit that's going away any time soon.

"They will not be non-existent. They will continue to smoke. That will not work. It didn't stop people from drinking in the '20s," he argues.

The General Assembly failed to pass a statewide smoking ban this year with many lawmakers worried about passing sweeping legislation in an election year. But the proposal is sure to be back in 2015.

Still, Martin promises to keep the pressure on lawmakers, even if he doesn't have another campaign in him.

"It's a fight, and after awhile you just get tired of fighting. I'm still fighting. I'm still in there, and I'll still keep fighting as long as I can..." he says.

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.
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