NEW CUMBERLAND - Tuesday's meeting of the Hancock County health board turned into a forum on the pros and cons of banning smoking in public places.
Of the 11 people who addressed the board, six said they supported the Hancock County Health Department's proposal to ban smoking and five said they opposed it.
The five-member board decided to take comments Tuesday when it became apparent that people representing various interests - veterans' organizations, anti-tobacco groups and casino gaming - had come prepared to speak.
SMOKING SPEECH — John Hissam, commander of Chester American Legion Post 121, addresses the Hancock County health board on Tuesday. Hissam is one of several veterans’ organization leaders who oppose a county-wide smoking ban under review by the health board. -- Stephen Huba
The draft Hancock County Clean Air Regulation would ban smoking in all restaurants, gaming facilities, private clubs, sports arenas, places of employment and concert venues, as well as certain outdoor public places. If the policy is adopted, Hancock County would join 24 other West Virginia counties - out of 55 - that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment.
The board must first receive public comments before it can take action on the policy.
Coming out against an all-inclusive smoking ban were the Chester and Newell American Legion posts, New Cumberland VFW Post 3526, the Newell Volunteer Fire Department, and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort.
"It's going to kill us," said John Hissam, commander of Chester American Legion Post 121.
Hissam estimated that such a ban would cost Post 121 between $75,000 and $100,000 a year in lost revenue.
A non-smoker, Hissam said he supports a ban for restaurants, hospitals and schools but not for private veterans' organizations.
"No one has to come to my post. That is a decision you make as an individual," he said.
Robert Pope, commander of Newell American Legion Post 114, said a smoking ban also would have a trickle-down effect on community organizations that benefit from the American Legion's charitable giving.
"Those donations will probably cease," Pope said. "I believe it's going to hurt us severely. It's going to hurt the school system."
Bill Ross, commander of the New Cumberland VFW Post 3526, held up pictures of disabled veterans and said, "Would you tell these wounded warriors, with missing limbs, that they can't smoke?"
Mike Nixon, president of the Newell Area Civic Council, said a smoking ban would "devastate" the bingo that the Newell Volunteer Fire Department relies on for fundraising.
Vince Azzarello, senior director of human resources at Mountaineer, said the racetrack casino is concerned about the impact an indoor smoking ban would have on the gaming industry in Hancock County.
"There are unintended consequences to such an action," he said. "We believe there will be an impact."
Azzarello said Mountaineer could experience a 20 to 30 percent reduction in business from a smoking ban. Something similar happened when Mardi Gras Casino & Resort, in Cross Lanes near Charleston, adopted a no-smoking policy, he said. Of the five casinos in West Virginia, only The Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, and Mardi Gras prohibit smoking.
Mountaineer permits smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby and trackside. Smoking also is permitted in the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room. Three of Mountaineer's restaurants - Riverfront Buffet, La Bonne Vie and Big Al's - are completely non-smoking, as is one of the slot gaming rooms.
"We are struggling to deal with increasing competition from other states," Azzarello said. "We need to be able to offer services that they don't. It's up to us to do what we can to keep our guests coming back."
But proponents of the smoking ban told the health board that the economic impact would be negligible and that the benefits would far outweigh the consequences.
"We have not seen a significant loss of business once these smoking bans have been enacted (in other West Virginia counties)," said Juliana Frederick, West Virginia grassroots manger for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.
Frederick said that lung cancer is the "biggest killer" of any type of cancer and that 90 percent of those deaths are tobacco related.
Eric Carper, of the Brooke-Hancock Tobacco Prevention Coalition, also brushed off concerns about the dire effects of a smoking ban.
"People just get used to it, and it just becomes a way of life," he said. "People won't give up drinking and gambling just because they can't smoke."
Bill Godshall, of Smokefree Pennsylvania, suggested the board consider removing electronic cigarettes from the draft policy. He also said banning smoking in outdoor public places would be virtually unenforceable.
The draft proposal would ban smoking in all Hancock County restaurants, bars, gaming facilities, private clubs, hotels, motels, restaurants, bingo operations, fire department facilities, retail stores, tobacco businesses, concert venues, sports arenas, bowling lanes and other enclosed public places.
It also would ban smoking in public parks, including pavilions, playgrounds, golf courses, fairs, festivals, outdoor service lines, outdoor serving areas of restaurants and other outdoor public places. All places of employment would be covered by the regulation.
Any designated outdoor smoking areas would have to be at least 20 feet from an entrance, exit or ventilation unit, according to the policy.
No-smoking signs would have to be posted in all areas covered by the policy.
The regulation would not apply to private residences, including individual apartments or housing units that are part of a multi-unit apartment building, according to the policy.
The regulation gives the health department enforcement powers, including the authority to inspect for compliance, take complaints and file charges. Violation of the regulation would be considered a misdemeanor punishable by a monetary fine.
Board Chairman Rick Smith said the board likely will consider revisions to the policy at its May 6 regular meeting.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)