This city that was once a hub of the nation's tobacco trade is now divided on a proposed smoking ban that could shape similar initiatives across the Bluegrass State.
The Louisville Metro Council's decision last month to postpone an anxiously awaited vote on a ban sparked emotional outbursts from a packed chamber split between supporters and opponents. The council is to revisit the issue Thursday, and it is again drawing keen attention in a state with one of the nation's highest rates of adult smokers.
"As the state's biggest city, Louisville sets the precedent," said Mike Kuntz of the local chapter of the American Lung Association. "It would be monumental for cities up in northern Kentucky that are slowly moving forward on smoking bans, like Paducah and Bowling Green."
The initial Louisville proposal, put forth by Councilman George Melton, would prohibit smoking in restaurants and day-care centers. An amendment would extend the proposal to include most businesses, workplaces and public buildings, except bars.
But after nearly two hours of debate July 14, it was decided that more time was needed to consider the issue.
Louisville Councilman Tom Owen attributed the hesitation to the city's merger with surrounding Jefferson County in 2003, when the council grew from 12 members to 26. As a fledgling body governing a metro population of nearly 700,000, the council is tackling one of the most significant issues it has ever faced.
"We've only had 30 months experience as a new government. We are feeling our way along on an issue as divisive as this one," Owen said.
Still, the postponement came as a surprise to many, especially after Louisville's chamber of commerce announced in early June its support for a ban in most businesses, except bars.
"We would generally be in favor of less regulation," said Carmen Hickerson, a spokeswoman. "But quality-of-life issues are decisions that factor in to economic development. Those things have as much, or more, weight than traditional economic development tools, such as tax breaks."
A move to going smoke-free would be a dramatic shift from Louisville's past, rooted in tobacco production.
In the late 1800s, the city had 15 warehouses, 16 manufacturing plants and 79 companies that made cigars and snuff. The tobacco industry boomed in the early 20th century, and Brown & Williamson arrived in 1929, becoming the nation's third-largest tobacco maker before it merged with R.J. Reynolds in 2004.
"Louisville was one of the major tobacco manufacturing cities in America," said Owen, who is also a history professor at the University of Louisville.
Now, Louisville may be close to joining the growing number of smoke-free urban areas. More than 4,800 municipalities across the country are covered by smoking bans in workplaces, restaurants or bars, or all three, according to the Berkeley, Calif.-based American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. Fourteen states -- as small as Rhode Island and as large as California -- have passed similar bans. Montgomery County, Md., has banned smoking in public places and there are similar actions proposed in the District.
"If a ban isn't passed, Louisville will be behind the curve," said Ellen Hahn, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, who campaigned for the bans on most public indoor smoking passed by the Kentucky cities of Lexington and Georgetown. "A smoking ban would put the city right in the mainstream of other American cities."
Supporters of Councilman Melton's proposal say Louisville's ban needs to be clear and far-reaching.
"The weaker the ordinance is or the more venues we exempt, the more times we have to come back in and strengthen it," said Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh. "It's a workplace safety issue. We should protect all workers, not just some of them."
Another proposal, introduced by Councilman Robin Engle, would allow businesses to pay $200 a year to have an enclosed smoking area, indicated by a city-issued sign placed in their window. Customers would then have the freedom to decide whether to frequent that business.
Engle's proposal is supported by those who believe a smoking ban infringes on the personal freedom of business owners.
"More Kentucky businesses, especially restaurants, are going smoke-free voluntarily," said Jim Waters, a spokesman for the Bowling Green-based Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. "If an increasing number of restaurants are doing that on their own, why do we need government interference? Why not let the market decide?"
Amy Shir signals support for the ban, which would prohibit smoking in restaurants and day-care centers. An amendment could broaden its scope.