Debate on proposed smoking ban continues

NEW CUMBERLAND – Debate over Hancock County’s proposed smoking ban generated more heat than light on Tuesday, with the health board saying it needed more time to consider revisions to the policy.

In discussion following public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, board members signaled flexibility toward some parts of the draft regulation, including the proposed smoking prohibition on golf courses.

“Myself, I see nothing wrong with it,” board member James Pryor said.

“It’s almost a common sense thing,” board Chairman Rick Smith said. “We need to look at the outside (provisions).”

The draft Hancock County Clean Air Regulation, which updates a 1999 policy, 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 that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment.

Even though an estimated 72 to 75 percent of Hancock County residents are nonsmokers, the health board proposal has generated opposition on the part of veterans’ groups, limited video lottery operators and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort. Members of a coalition calling itself say the smoking ban would have the unintended consequence of hurting Hancock County’s tourist economy by driving out-of-state smokers away from bars, clubs, video lottery parlors and Mountaineer.

“This inefficient, discriminatory assault on our business is not defensible,” said Jeffrey Sayre, an analyst at Mountaineer. “(Pennsylvania) allows smoking, and people will go where they have freedom of choice. I and others work on protecting Mountaineer from the outside competition. If we save revenue, we save jobs. It’s a shame we have to protect ourselves from this local action.”

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.

Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff countered the predictions of economic doom, telling the board that since Mardi Gras prohibited smoking in 2008, it has surpassed Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack in overall revenue.

“Every time there is a presentation, the devastating effect gets more and more,” Huff said. “I keep asking them to show me the data, and I don’t see any data. … I truly don’t think a smoking regulation is going to affect the economy.”

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.

Mountaineer officials have told Hancock County commissioners the smoking ban would result in a 20 percent drop in casino revenue, Commissioner Jeff Davis said. The opening of the Penn National Gaming “racino” in Austintown this fall could result in an additional 30 percent drop in revenue.

Davis said he’s convinced the smoking ban, if enacted, would affect the local economy and, by extension, the county budget. Annual video lottery revenues from Mountaineer to the county currently total about $3 million.

A 30 percent drop for Mountaineer would also mean a 30 percent drop for the county, Davis said.

“If we lost $1.5 million a year, we’d have to start looking at where we can cut. The last thing we want to do is cut services,” he said.

Davis suggested the health board consider exemptions for limited video lottery cafes and businesses with liquor licenses.

“Put it to rest. You have to have some kind of policy,” he said.

Smith agreed that the board has to take some action. “We need to move off of square one. We need to come together and determine what we want to do,” he said.

The board will meet again at 12:30 p.m. July 8 to consider any revisions to the policy. There will be no meeting in June because the board normally meets every other month.

The board first must adopt the policy for public comment and then, after a 30-day comment period, vote on final adoption.

Of the 18 people who spoke at Tuesday’s health board meeting, eight were against the proposed ban, mostly for economic reasons, and seven were for it, mostly for health reasons. Two speakers suggested a compromise solution, and one suggested the issue be put to the voters in a referendum.

The board did not take up a suggestion from Commissioner Dan Greathouse to form an ad hoc committee to work out a compromise. issued a statement after the meeting, praising Davis but criticizing Greathouse’s “lack of accountability and transparency.” The group wants Greathouse, who also is director of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau, to take a stand on the proposed ban and acknowledge its “irreversibly damaging effects.”

Greathouse said he does not want to get in the way of the health board’s work.

The draft proposal currently under review by the Hancock County health board would ban 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 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.