Saturday, November 11, 2017

Advocate says keys to passing a local smoking ban are a plan, mobilized citizens, young people and perhaps a dose of luck

Wayne Meriwether at the workshop (Photo by Melissa Patrick)
By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

MADISONVILLE, Ky. – Two big keys to winning passage of a smoke-free ordinance are a systematic plan and mobilization of citizens, a hospital administrator who has persuaded two towns in his county to enact indoor-smoking bans told Western Kentucky journalists Friday.

It also helped that high-school students were involved and that one of them prompted the county judge-executive at the time to make a controversial remark, Wayne Meriwether, CEO of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Leitchfield, said at "Covering Health: A News Workshop" in Madisonville.

Meriwether said Judge-Executive Gary Logsdon "went berserk" and drew Louisville news coverage that reached Grayson County. He said city officials in Leitchfield and Clarkson "didn't want to be seen as being like the elected county officials" on Fiscal Court, which rejected the ordinance.

Meriwether said he had hoped Logsdon, the recipient of a double lung transplant, would be the "elected-official champion" of the ordinance, but when it came before Fiscal Court, defenders of individual and private-property rights carried the day and a magistrate's motion for an ordinance didn't even get a second.

When a high-school student asked Logsdon, "If it’s not the role of government to protect people, then what is the role of government?" Logsdon replied, "I’m not black and I’m not Obama, and I’m not passing, making you do anything."

Logsdon apologized a few days later, and resigned several months later. But he inadvertently paved the way for passage of an ordinance in the county seat of Leitchfield, population 6,700, Meriwether said.

The Population Health Committee had already taken a poll that showed 82 percent of the people in the "very conservative" county favored a smoking ban, and had prepared booklets for each community showing the potential benefits. So it was ready to mount a campaign to persuade the Leitchfield City Council – where two or three of the six members are smokers, Meriwether said.

"I guarantee they received a lot more calls in favor of a smoking ordinance than against it," he said. The vote on the council was 5 to 1.

"This was amazing, that we could do that," Meriwether said. He said the involvement of Grayson County High School students helped, because "It's harder to say no" to them.

The task was more difficult in the smaller town of Clarkson, pop. 875, where the city commission vote was 3-2. Meriwether said one commissioner told him, "I can't support this. I might make somebody mad. I need this job."

"Those are the kinds of issues that you face in small, rural Kentucky," said Meriwether, who moved to Leitchfield from Henderson five years ago.

Meriwether said the most common objection he hears is "It's my right to smoke." He said he replied, "You have a right to smoke, but you don't have the right to impose your right on someone else when it affects their health."

He shares credit with the hospital's Population Health Committee, which includes the school superintendent, a plant manager, a business owner, the health department director, an extension agent and the tourism director, "A good cross-section of people who care about the community."

The committee decided to tackle smoking, Meriwether said, because "We didn't want to do another 'How much weight can you lose over the next six weeks?' We wanted to do something with a long-term effect."

Besides smoking, the committee's targets are obesity, lack of physical activity and awareness of health issues. He said it is working on a community garden and a permanent location for the local farmers' market.

But there is still work to do on smoking. Meriwether said he is working on an ordinance in Caneyville, pop. 600, and may go back to Fiscal Court because appointed Judge-Executive Kevin Henderson, former police chief in Leitchfield, is more favorable to it than Logsdon was.

"We may wound up with a countywide smoking ordinance yet," he said. "If it can be done in Leitchfield and Clarkson, it ought to be done anywhere in the state of Kentucky."

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