NEW CUMBERLAND - Setting aside concerns about economic impact, the Hancock County health board adopted on Tuesday a smoking ban that would cover gaming facilities, private clubs, bars and other public places.
County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff called the board's vote "a good thing for the community and for public health."
The regulation, which is still a draft, 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 28 other West Virginia counties that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment, according to the American Lung Association.
Tuesday's unanimous vote by the five-member board triggers a 30-day public comment period, which ends Aug. 11. Comments about the policy may be dropped off at the health department or sent by mail or email.
A public hearing on the Clean Air Regulation will be held at 6 p.m. July 23 in the New Cumberland Municipal Building.The next opportunity for the policy to be adopted is the health board meeting scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Aug. 26.
Prior to the board's vote, two people spoke in favor of the policy and six people spoke against it.
Opponents of the smoking ban say it will have a negative impact on the tourism and gaming industry in Hancock County, especially Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, veterans' organizations, and limited video lottery cafes.
Joseph L. Billhimer, president of MTR Gaming Group Inc., Mountaineer's parent company, told the board the smoking ban will hurt Mountaineer and, by extension, the economy of Hancock County.
"I don't mean to sound threatening," he said, "but if the smoking ban passes without any exceptions, revenue will decline, tax dollars will be lost and jobs will be lost. ... It's just a pure fact."
Mountaineer employs 1,300 people and contributes about $3.2 million in taxes to Hancock County annually, he said.
Billhimer suggested the health board amend the policy to make all the Mountaineer restaurants and 10 percent of the gaming floor nonsmoking areas.
"We're very willing to cooperate and participate with the board," he said, noting that he had suggested language that the board could use. "Help us protect our jobs and our 2 million visitors."
Currently, Mountaineer permits smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby and trackside, and offers both smoking and non-smoking hotel rooms. Smoking also is permitted in the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room.
Three of the Mountaineer's restaurants - Riverfront Buffet, La Bonne Vie and Big Al's - are completely non-smoking, as is one of the slot gaming rooms.
Billhimer said Mountaineer would be willing to make 80 percent of its hotel rooms nonsmoking rooms. Currently, 60 percent of the rooms are nonsmoking, he said.
Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis suggested something similar, asking for an exemption for Mountaineer and all businesses with liquor licenses.
"These are places where children don't go," he said.
Davis said he's convinced an all-encompassing smoking ban would result in a 15 percent drop in revenue for Mountaineer. The impact of that, plus another 15 percent from the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio, which opens in November, would hurt Hancock County's bottom line, he said.
"Thirty percent of $3.2 million (in taxes) is $1 million. We cannot afford to lose $1 million in revenue," Davis said.
As the board began its deliberations, it did not consider the recommendations from Billhimer or Davis. Discussion was limited to two minor revisions - removing golf courses from the regulation and clarifying a provision having to do with the property around health care facilities.
Afterward, Davis said he was disappointed "in what the financial impact will be to the county. This feels like a double whammy."
He said he's hopeful the board will still adopt "exceptions for these ABC establishments, especially Mountaineer."
Asked about the potential for economic harm, Huff said, "I personally have not been provided with data to support that - to show that the smoking regulation is the cause."
The official draft approved Tuesday bans smoking in all 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 bans smoking in public parks, including pavilions, playgrounds, 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.
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.
Written comments can be sent to the Hancock County Health Department, P.O. Box 578, New Cumberland, WV 26047, or emailed to Jackie.L.Huff@wv.gov.
Copies of the draft policy also are available on the website HancockCountyHealthDepartment.com and at all three Hancock County libraries.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)