The big question in Hancock County

NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. – A proposed ban on smoking in public places in Hancock County is generating some heat from opponents who worry about everything from economic harm to restrictions on personal liberty.

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 20 other West Virginia counties, out of 55, that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment.

The regulation, drafted by the Hancock County Health Department, currently is under review by the Hancock County Board of Health. The five-member board will discuss the policy again at a special meeting at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the New Cumberland Municipal Building.

Public reaction to the policy so far has been mixed, with Hancock County residents expressing everything from support to ambivalence to outright opposition. Hancock County Commissioner Dan Greathouse said he has been soliciting opinions via Facebook and in person.

“Overwhelmingly, most people would favor a (smoking) ban in restaurants,” Greathouse said. “I would say 80 percent of the people I’ve talked to support that. I’d like to see it stopped in restaurants. … There were those who said, ‘Ban it everywhere,’ and those who said, ‘Don’t ban it anywhere.’ “

Greathouse noted that his survey is not scientific. As director of the Top of West Virginia Convention & Visitors Bureau, Greathouse said he worries about the potential impact such a ban would have on Hancock County’s gaming industry.

“It definitely would affect Mountaineer (Casino, Racetrack & Resort). There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “If you look at Mountaineer, about 6 percent of the people who go there are from West Virginia. The rest are from out of state, so (a smoking ban) would affect a whole different group of people.”

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, said Jackie Huff, health department administrator.

Mountaineer spokeswoman Lesley Campbell said Mountaineer permits smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby and trackside. “We offer both smoking and non-smoking hotel rooms,” she said.

Smoking also is permitted in the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room, she said.

Campbell said 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.

Greathouse said he also thinks Hancock County health officials should coordinate their efforts with Brooke County, since Weirton straddles the county line. “We’re in kind of an unusual situation,” he said.

Officials and patrons of veterans’ organizations are coming out against an all-inclusive ban.

“Drinking beer, smoking and gambling go together. Without one of the three, you lose customers. It’s as simple as that,” said John Hissam, commander of Chester American Legion Post 121.

Hissam said a smoking ban would hurt the legion’s bottom line by driving away patrons of the organization’s limited video lottery gaming room. In West Virginia, veterans’ organizations may have up to 10 video lottery machines.

In February, Post 121’s machines generated $53,758 in net revenue, part of which goes to the state, part of which is distributed to cities and counties, and part of which stays with the organization, according to the West Virginia Lottery.

Hissam estimated that the video lottery machines generate between 25-40 percent of the legion’s annual income. “I would venture to say that we would lose $75,000 to $100,000 a year (under a smoking ban),” he said.

Such a loss of revenue also could affect the legion’s charitable giving, Hissam said. “Our only choice would be to cut back some place,” he said.

Hissam, who served in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970, said he’s also opposed to the smoking ban on philosophical grounds.

“The men and ladies that belong (to the American Legion), we put our lives on the line for this country and (for) the people of this country to have the freedoms and rights that we have. For some group to take those rights away – I just don’t think that’s right,” he said.

Hissam said an indoor smoking ban threatens people’s freedom to associate with whomever they want and freedom to join whatever organization they choose.

“The blood of veterans has provided for that,” he said. “Now you’re telling me I can’t do something that’s my right to do? … I don’t smoke, so I understand where they’re coming from, but no one’s forcing them to go in those places.”

During happy hour at Post 121 on Tuesday, about 10 out of 30 patrons were seen smoking at the bar. Among them was Lanny Debee, 77, of Chester, who said he started smoking homemade cigarettes – corn silk wrapped in newspaper – when he was 8.

“I don’t think they should be able to stop smoking in a place like this. I think it’s bull (expletive),” he said.

Kenny Stefl Jr., 42, of Elkton, Ohio, who was at Post 121 with his father, Kenny Stefl Sr., said he comes to the Chester post because he knows he can smoke in West Virginia establishments. Ohio’s indoor smoking ban, passed by voters in November 2006, began to be enforced in May 2007.

“You’ve got to have some wildlife sanctuary for the people to go to,” Stefl said.

Butch Duke, administrator of Moose Lodge 122 in East Liverpool, said Ohio’s indoor smoking ban has affected membership at the fraternal organization.

“When the smoking ban went into effect, nobody was coming. They went to other places,” he said. “They stopped coming and went to West Virginia.”

Before any policy is adopted, the health board must vote to make it available for public comment and then hold public hearings. Huff said there likely will be a daytime hearing and an evening hearing to accommodate people’s work schedules.

“I would want a composite of our community,” Huff said. “The board will take all that into consideration and then decide what they want to do. It could go many different ways.”

Board Chairman Rick Smith said it could be several months before the board makes a decision.

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.

The regulation defines smoking as “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted or heated cigar, cigarette or pipe, or any lighted or heated tobacco or plant product intended for inhalation, in any manner or in any form.”

The regulation also extends to the use of electronic cigarettes or “any oral smoking device.”