NEW CUMBERLAND - Despite emotional, last-minute pleas from Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort employees, the Hancock County health board on Tuesday unanimously approved an indoor, countywide smoking ban with no exemptions for gaming facilities.
The long-anticipated action makes Hancock County the 29th county in West Virginia to adopt a comprehensive Clean Air Regulation that bans smoking in all indoor public places and places of employment.
For months, the policy under consideration by the five-member board has divided the county - between people who say they don't want to be exposed to secondhand smoke and people who say the regulation will drive out-of-state smokers away from Mountaineer and other gaming destinations.
TUB?FULL?OF?COMMENTS — A plastic tub stuffed full of written comments about the Hancock County Clean Air Regulation sits on a table Tuesday as health board members Jill Orenzuk and Rick Smith consider their votes. -- Stephen Huba
The debate also has been intensely watched at the state level, bringing out anti-tobacco activists and supporters of the state's gaming industry.
In the end, health board members said their chief aim, the promotion of public health, will be good for the Hancock County economy.
The regulation, which takes effect on July 1, 2015, bans smoking in all restaurants, gaming facilities, private clubs, sports arenas, places of employment and concert venues, as well as certain outdoor public places.
"Change is a hard thing," health board member Phil Rujak said, "but everyone will adapt."
Rujak, who made the motion to adopt the policy, said he has "great confidence" that Mountaineer and other smoking ban opponents will be able to adjust. "Those people are smart business people. They have the ability and the know-how to make things work," he said.
Board President Rick Smith said the delayed effective date will give all those covered by the regulation time to "prepare and adhere to the policies that are forthcoming."
Mountaineer officials recently were given a booklet titled "Implementing a Smoke-Free Regulation: A Guide for Hospitality Venues," with chapters such as "Time to Move On," "Transitioning to Smoke-Free," "Training Employees" and "Talking with Customers."
Smith said the board, throughout the months of discussion and dissension, stayed single-minded in its focus on public health.
"It's two different issues - revenue and life - and you can't compare the two," he said. "This was not, in any way, an easy process or a decision made in haste."
In the months leading up to Tuesday's vote, Mountaineer officials warned that an all-encompassing smoking ban, with no exceptions, would reduce business at the casino by 20 percent, which could result in layoffs and less tax revenue for Hancock County.
Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis shared that view, saying that the loss of business at Mountaineer will result in an annual loss of $1 million in tax revenue to the county. Davis asked that the policy's implementation be delayed for a year because the county's budget for fiscal year 2015 is already set.
Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern, wearing the same red-lettered "Save Our Job" T-shirt as his employees, seemed visibly shaken by Tuesday's vote.
"We are disheartened and dismayed with the actions by the (board). We were hoping that the board would listen to the compromises we set forth," he said. "What we do now and when - we don't know that yet."
Kern said Mountaineer will comply with the policy but can't predict what will happen. "I think there's going to be a panic at my place. They're going to be concerned (about the possibility of layoffs)," he said.
Prior to the vote, Mountaineer had offered to make 80 percent of its hotel, 10 percent of the gaming floor and 100 percent of public areas - restaurants, trackside areas, banquet and meeting facilities, the Harv, the spa and the gift shop - non-smoking.
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.
Of the five casinos in West Virginia, only The Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort, in Cross Lanes near Charleston, prohibit smoking. The latter is the result of stricter smoking regulations adopted by Kanawha County in 2008, said Christina Mickey, project coordinator for the Smoke-Free Initiative of West Virginia.
Elsewhere in the state - at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack - stricter smoking regulations adopted by Jefferson County in 2004 and Ohio County in 2005 have exemptions for gaming facilities.
But Mickey said the trend in the state is toward the kind of action taken Tuesday by the Hancock County health board.
"In the past five or six years, we haven't seen a board of health that has gone back to revisit regulations make any exemptions. This (Hancock County) regulation is very consistent with what other boards are passing," she said.
"West Virginia boards of health are following the same national trend, which is going back and removing any exemptions where workers and the public are exposed (to secondhand smoke)," Mickey said. "With the addition of Hancock County's regulation, that will be three of the five casinos that will be smoke-free."
Mickey said the mentality of some smoking ban opponents that "the sky is falling" is unwarranted and unsupported by the evidence.
"It's more how the business owner accepts and transitions to a status of a smoke-free environment, and makes the most of this change, that impacts their business," she said. "Overall, boards of health continue to report a great buy-in from their communities and great compliance levels."
The policy, as adopted on 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 are covered by the regulation.
Any designated outdoor smoking areas will have to be at least 20 feet from an entrance, exit or ventilation unit, according to the policy. No-smoking signs will have to be posted in all areas covered by the policy.
The regulation does 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 is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a monetary fine.
In July, the board removed golf courses from the regulation and made a slight change to a provision having to do with the property around health care facilities.