NEW CUMBERLAND - Smoking in public places in Hancock County may soon be prohibited under a draft policy being considered by the Hancock County Board of Health.
The board gave the policy a second reading on Tuesday but delayed action on it to allow time for further review. Board members said they wanted their questions about the proposed Hancock County Clean Air Regulation to be answered before they adopt it.
Many of the questions had to do with possible exceptions to the policy, but Hancock County Health Officer Dr. Anna M. Suray said, "We're not doing any exemptions off the bat. We are going full force with no smoking in public places. ... If you live in Hancock County or work in Hancock County, we're going to protect you from smoke exposure-related illnesses."
Hancock County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff said the new regulation, if approved, will replace a more permissive one dating back to 1996. "We haven't done anything (since then)," she said, noting that the new policy has been under development for several years.
Hancock County was one of only six West Virginia counties to recently receive an "F" grade from the American Lung Association in West Virginia. The state of West Virginia received an "F" in the American Lung Association's "2014 State of Tobacco Control" report. An "F" means "protections from secondhand smoke are inadequate or non-existent."
Twenty out of West Virginia's 55 counties have regulations in place that ban smoking in virtually all public places and places of employment, according to the American Lung Association.
"With all the data out there about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, I don't see how it could even be ignored any longer," Huff said.
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 members discussed, among other things, whether the policy would have a deleterious effect on businesses in Hancock County, especially Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort. Mountaineer currently allows smoking in certain areas, said Ed Bowman, manager of Mountaineer's Woodview Golf Course on Ballantyne Road.
"They have a great concern here," Bowman said.
Of the five casinos in West Virginia, only The Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort, in Cross Lanes, a suburb of Charleston, prohibit smoking, Huff said.
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.
Health board member James Pryor said he also has misgivings about the policy. "Between the smoker and the non-smoker, the smoker has absolutely no rights," he said. "A lot of places are going smoke-free because they feel pressured to."
Pryor and board member Phil Rujak said they used to smoke but then quit. "The goal here is not to harm anyone. The goal is to help people become healthy," Rujak said.
Health board Chairman Rick Smith told health department staff members, who drafted the policy, that the board takes the issue seriously.
"We want to do something. We want to make (Hancock County) a healthier environment," Smith said. "We've got a lot of work to do to determine where we're going with this."
The health board's next meeting is at 12:30 p.m. April 1.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's report that linked smoking to lung cancer and other diseases for the first time.