This story originally appeared in the April 28 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.
Mandy Kaplan, who co-owns 859 Taproom in Florence with her husband, Jeff, has never allowed smoking at her bar.
When Kaplan, 45, was young, she remembers that people would smoke in houses like “it was nothing, it didn’t matter,” she said.
But over time, Kaplan – and much of the nation – learned of the adverse effects smoking could have not only on the health of the smoker but on the people in its vicinity.
“In the ’80s it was cool to smoke,” Kaplan said, “and now we know it kills you, and it’s going to give you cancer.”
When Kaplan and her husband opened 859 Taproom in fall 2021, they knew they wanted to keep it smoke-free for the health and safety of themselves and their customers.
“It’s all about not killing each other,” she said.
Smoking is part of Kentucky’s culture, said several smoking ban advocates at a Highland Heights City Council meeting in April. This has contributed to the lag in the Northern Kentucky region – and the state – in passing smoking bans.
Kentucky is one of 12 states with no restrictions on smoking indoors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC. This leaves the decision for smoke-free ordinances up to individual cities and counties within the state.
Members of a local coalition meant to raise awareness of the dangers of smoking have been working with local cities to pass indoor smoking bans city by city in Northern Kentucky, where comprehensive countywide bans are not in place. Dayton was the first NKY city to pass a ban, followed by Bellevue. Now, Highland Heights is considering an ordinance that would largely ban smoking inside businesses and on city-owned property.
Breathe Easy NKY, an organization dedicated to passing smoking bans in the region, brought members to speak to Highland Heights council members April 18, encouraging them to pass an ordinance.
“The question for me is why not do it?” asked Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the NKY Chamber of Commerce.
Representatives from Breathe Easy will now meet with the Highland Heights mayor, Greg Meyers, and other members of council to discuss the model ordinance and answer questions.
After the ordinance is created, the proposed ban would get a first and second reading and a vote. The process could take up to a few months, said Highland Heights Mayor Greg Meyers.
“It’s important for us to stand up and set the example for other municipalities,” said Dr. Michael Gieske, a doctor of family medicine at St. Elizabeth Physicians, in his presentation with Breathe Easy at the April meeting.
Over a decade ago, Kenton County passed a partial smoking ban, which prohibits smoking in most businesses and workplaces but allows some private clubs and drinking establishments to file for an exemption if they serve alcohol and don’t allow patrons under age 18.
A 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine – analyzing smoking bans in Argentina – found that partial bans “do not significantly impact smoking prevalence, and are found to increase smoking intensity among individuals who smoke every day.”
Full bans, on the other hand, reduce national smoking prevalence over time, according to the study – especially among younger people.
Campbell does not have a ban in place, but Dayton, Bellevue and Highland Heights are all in that county.
Boone County does not currently have a smoking ban, and there is not any discussion to have one county-wide, according to Boone County Fiscal Court Clerk Shona Schulkers.
However, there have been efforts in some cities to push for one. At a recent Florence City Council meeting, for example, several organizations spoke in favor of anti-smoking legislation.
“I believe momentum is building in the Northern Kentucky area for smoke-free policy,” said Tom Cahill of LiveWell Florence, a group that advocates for building healthy environments, systems and behaviors in the city. “I encourage Florence and other communities to help stand up for cleaner air.”
Additionally, some cities and municipalities in Northern Kentucky have taken matters to limit indoor smoking into their own hands. Dayton and Bellevue are the only two Northern Kentucky cities to have passed a citywide indoor smoking ban.
Charlie Cleves is the mayor of Bellevue, which passed a city-wide smoke free ordinance in early February. It will be enforced starting May 15.
“To get our kids hooked on [nicotine] when we’re trying to get the adults off of it is just a crime to me, to be having people do something that can kill them,” Cleves said.
But not all Kentuckians are in agreement. Some business owners in Northern Kentucky told LINK nky they fear smoking bans will lower revenues and push customers away.
‘We’re lucky if we’re making one dollar a drink’
After Dayton began enforcing its smoke-free ordinance in November 2022, Lisa Mills – the manager of Rose Room, one of only two bars in the city – said the dive bar lost more than half of their customers.
“It kind of got shut out,” she said. “Everyone went to Bellevue and Newport.”
To make up for the drop in revenue, Mills said the bar has had to cut the cost of beer to $2.75 to draw customers back in.
“Everybody else is $3.50,” she said. “We’re lucky if we’re making one dollar a drink.”
But research – including that of the National Cancer Institute and the CDC – often shows that smoking bans do not adversely affect economic outcomes for businesses. The same has been true for the parts of Kentucky that restrict smoking, according to Breathe Easy – in fact, the group said the bans can end up having a positive economic effect.
Additionally, according to Breathe Easy presentation, tobacco smoking exposure causes $2.79 billion in lost productivity costs every year. Kentucky has spent $1.92 billion every year on healthcare due to tobacco smoke exposure, Cooper said. Each household in the state pays $1,158 in taxes to cover healthcare costs due to smoking.
But Dayton is small, Mills contends, and customers can easily travel to nearby cities that don’t have smoking bans instead.
“I mean statewide it wouldn’t be that bad because people don’t have no choice but to come out,” she said. “Don’t just do one little city that’s so tiny with two little bars that don’t even serve food.”
Some patrons haven’t adapted to the change either.
“We have people that might sneak and smoke… they’re sticking their cigarette butts up on the counters,” Mills said. “They sneak and smoke in [the bathroom], so when you gotta close the bar, the girls gotta stick their hands in the urinals to get those cigarette butts out because people don’t listen.”
Dayton Mayor Ben Baker has publicly touted his city’s decision as a result of a “discussion on healthy workplaces” for employees.
Baker has also said that the city surveyed Northern Kentucky residents and found 85% of voters supported a smoking ban. But at a Dayton City Council meeting on Sept. 6 of last year, attendees seemed to be split on the issue – with eight speakers showing support for the smoke-free ordinance and seven raising concerns.
Jacoba Wells, a Dayton resident, said she opposed the ban “for many reasons” but, most of all, voiced concerns about the origins of the proposal – which she said “did not originate from Dayton.” The law, like the Highland Heights proposal, is based on a model ordinance submitted by Breathe Easy.
She was also worried about how it might affect the city’s businesses, echoing Mills’ sentiment by arguing that residents will bring their business to nearby smoking-friendly cities.
“This is going to be bad for Dayton businesses and Dayton citizens,” she said. “They are going to lose their jobs.”
Others at the September meeting pushed Dayton’s city council to vote in favor of the ordinance, – saying it would improve public health and increase foot traffic.
Julie Kirkpatrick, the president and CEO of Meet NKY – Northern Kentucky’s official tourism and convention services bureau – said the ordinance is personally important to her because of her now 19-year-old daughter, who developed a vaping addiction when she was 14 that resulted in her almost “losing her life.”
‘Everyone’s going to have to do it sooner or later’
The smoking ban in Bellevue was introduced shortly after Dayton began enforcing theirs. After the Health Department presented Cleves with statistics on how smoking contributed to heart attack and cancer rates, he was inspired to make the decision to protect Bellevue residents’ health.
“Everyone’s going to have to do it sooner or later. The health benefits are way too much to ignore,” Cleves said, adding that some residents’ health “doesn’t allow for them to be in an atmosphere where [they] feel like [they’ve] smoked two cigarettes when [they’ve] been in there for an hour.”
The ordinance was a popular decision for most Bellevue residents, as well.
“There was only a total of 14 people that were against it and that actually spoke to me,” Cleves said. “The people that came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘This is great’ – there was 100.”
Although Bellevue’s smoke-free ordinance won’t be enforced until May 15, the ban has already gained traction in the city.
“There was only about five places in Bellevue that allowed smoking to begin with,” Cleves said. “[Most] places have all come on board and enforce [the rules] already.”
Although most have been quick to hop on board, Cleves said that the Bellevue Vets Club has yet to prohibit smoking out of fear of losing business. Anticipating that businesses would have such concerns, Cleves said he observed the state of smoking bans in other nearby cities, speaking with mayors on how they made their decision and local business owners on how the bans impacted their sales.
“The facts were that once [businesses] cleared out the few people that hung around there all day and drank beer and smoked cigarettes for a long time, then there was people in there ordering more expensive drinks and families come in and it just made it so the places all do more business now,” Cleves said. “The Bellevue Veterans Club is very important to the city, and we do not want to harm them. They’re going to find out there’s a whole lot of people that would like to go there that don’t because they don’t want the smoking.”
Patrons at bars in other cities have echoed Cleves’ sentiments that they would continue showing support to their favorite businesses, even if they went smoke-free.
Jacquelyn Peterson and Mark Schultz have been regulars at KJ’s Pub in Crescent Springs, a smoke-friendly business, for a few years. They say they like coming to the bar to smoke, listen to live music and hang out with friends.
“I don’t need to smoke wherever I go, but I like to smoke and it makes doing things more fun for me, so it definitely is a reason I come here instead of other places,” said Schultz.
While Peterson and Schultz don’t agree with a smoking ban and feel that the decision to allow smoking should be left for businesses to decide, they said they would still return to KJ’s Pub even if a ban were put in place.
“I know the people that work here and I know some of the people that come here every weekend and I would come back for them,” Peterson said.
Some business owners in Northern Kentucky have made the decision to ban smoking in their establishments on their own accord.
Paul Shanley, the owner of Molly Malone’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Covington, said that he began to consider instituting a smoking ban in his business even before Kenton’s partial ban went into place.
“It made more sense with kids coming in,” he said. “I think a lot of restaurants were already nonsmoking before the ban. It was getting to that point where things change.”
Just across the river in nearby Cincinnati, restaurants were making such changes. After Ohio approved a ban on indoor smoking, all businesses went smoke-free, putting pressure on Northern Kentucky to decide if they would do the same.
Will Kentucky ever follow Ohio’s footsteps?
When Addyson Stansel worked as a bartender at Saddle Club in Fort Mitchell, some patrons were unaware that the bar had instituted a smoking ban more than a decade ago.
“I had people show up who hadn’t been there for 10 or 20 years, and they would pull out a pack of cigarettes and try to light one,” she said.
So Stansel – who worked at Saddle Club in 2022 – had to intervene.
“There were definitely complaints,” she said.
She told patrons to take their smoking outside before their cigarette was lit. And, more often than not, those customers would be “surprised.”
“Oh really,” she recalled hearing, “it didn’t used to be like that.” And when Stansel would inform the patron that the smoking policy had been in place for years, she would hear: “Oh whatever, that’s just stupid.”
But “worst case, they would just sit outside and take their drinks outside,” she said.
Stansel now works at The Post in Fort Thomas, which also doesn’t allow customers to smoke indoors. And she said if that were to change, she would likely leave and work someplace where smoking isn’t allowed – like nearby Ohio.
In November 2006, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure banning smoking in indoor public spaces and places of employment, providing a standard of protection from the health hazards associated with secondhand smoke exposure. Nearly 60% of Ohio residents voted in favor of the ban.
Ohio’s law does include exemptions: Nursing homes can allow smoking in individual patient rooms and in designated areas that meet certain criteria; hotels, motels and lodging facilities may designate as many as 20% of sleeping rooms for smoking; family business can allow smoking indoors as long as all employees are relatives of the owner, enclosed areas are not open to the public, smoke cannot migrate into no-smoking areas and its the only business located in a free-standing structure; and retail tobacco stores can annually request exemptions.
But enacting a statewide ban in Kentucky is more complicated.
In 2015, Kentucky Democrats introduced a bill that would have banned smoking in workplaces and indoor public places. It passed the House 51-46, with the support of some Republicans, after the addition of an amendment exempting cigar bars and private clubs. But the legislation would eventually die in the Senate.
“I deplore smoking,” former state Rep. Brian Linder, (R – Dry Ridge), who voted against the legislation in 2015, told the Louisville Courier Journal. “But my love for liberty is greater.”
Similar legislation has been introduced in recent years but hasn’t picked up steam.
Smoking status is protected from workplace discrimination in Kentucky, along with race, religion, sex, age and disability, among other things.
In 1990, the tobacco industry pushed for anti-discrimination laws that would protect smokers in the workplace, and Kentucky became one of the first out of 29 states to make smoking a civil right.
“Kentucky bourbon drinkers aren’t in a protected class,” said Sen. John Schickel (R-Union). “Someone with diabetes isn’t in a protected class. Why in the world would we have smokers in a protected class?”
Kentucky is one of the country’s top tobacco producers, with products used in cigarettes and cigars for its nicotine. Its production has been intertwined with Kentucky history for decades, acting as a pillar for the agriculture economy – it provided nearly 50% of farm income in 1964, and continues to contribute high numbers today – tobacco sales brought in an estimated $258 million in 2021.
And it has come at a cost. As of 2019, the state of Kentucky had the highest cancer rate – and lung cancer rate – in the country.
“Northern Kentucky has one of the higher rates of smoking in the region,” Stephanie Vogel, who works with the Northern Kentucky Health Department, told Spectrum News.
According to Breathe Easy, 24% of adults in the Northern Kentucky region are smokers, compared to 19% in Greater Cincinnati and 14% nationally.
“Tobacco use is deeply rooted in Kentucky culture and so we believe that continues to play a part in our higher rates,” Vogel added.
Still, polls show that Northern Kentuckians overwhelmingly support smoking bans. According to Live Well Florence, 81% of registered voters in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties support passing smoke-free laws in cities and counties in Kentucky.
Kaplan, for one, went as far as to say that “if you’re a bar only, and you want to allow people to smoke, I’m still not coming to your bar.”
Kaplan thinks “most people are going to be OK” with a smoking ban, especially with the prevalence of families in Northern Kentucky.
“I would be mad if I brought my child somewhere and they allowed smoking,” she said. “I mean, we already know it kills you.”
This story was done in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati. Students Andrea Oberto, Brianna Connock, Brooke Bethel, Hayley Garr, Hunter Kaesemeyer, Jared Dettmer, Maeve Hamlet, Maria Osnaya, Stephanie Scarbrough, and Sydney Asher contributed to this report.