CHESTER-Opponents of a proposed smoking ban for Hancock County are waging a public information campaign that they hope will influence the county health board's final decision.
A group calling itself No2theBan.com has established a presence on the Internet that includes a website, a Facebook page (Facebook.com/HancockCountyNo2theBan) and an online petition. The group characterizes itself as a coalition of businesses, organizations, unions and individuals.
Among the members is Chester fire Chief John Hissam, commander of Chester American Legion Post 121, who said the smoking ban would hurt the local gaming economy and, by extension, charitable giving.
"If a ban goes through, my organization will lose a tremendous amount of money, and that means we can't do what we've done in the past. ... That's going to come to a screeching halt," he said.
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 24 other West Virginia counties-out of 55-that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment.
Hissam estimated that an all-inclusive smoking ban would cost Post 121 between $75,000 and $100,000 a year in lost revenue-not only from members who smoke but also from patrons of the post's limited video lottery parlor.
Veterans organizations in West Virginia are permitted to have 10 video lottery machines and share the proceeds with the state and cities and counties.
While Hancock County public health officials cite the policy's health benefits, opponents are framing their argument in terms of the ban's potential economic impact.
"What we need to do is get the word out that this thing does not affect just the nonsmoker. It affects everybody. Once you lose jobs, they're not coming back," Hissam said.
The website No2theBan.com includes a logo with the words "Keep Our Dollars Here," while the Facebook page has a 30-second commercial that ties the proposed smoking ban with the loss of jobs and money for college scholarships, school buildings and senior citizen programs.
"No matter what your walk of life, keep the things that connect us right here at home," the commercial says.
The website includes an online petition and the message "Let our voice be heard May 6," an apparent reference to the next scheduled meeting of the Hancock County Board of Health.
Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort also is a member of the group, as is Chester VFW Post 6450 and several limited video lottery cafes in Hancock County.
"We have joined the coalition because we oppose implementation of a smoking ban in Hancock County," Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern said.
However, proponents of the ban say they have research on their side, citing studies that show little or no adverse economic effects where smoking bans have been imposed elsewhere in the country.
"Claims that smoke-free laws push customers towards casinos where smoking is permitted are ... unsupported by research. Consumer surveys indicate that whether or not a casino is smoke-free is unlikely to impact patronage decisions," according to the study "Secondhand Smoke and Casinos," published by the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium of St. Paul, Minn.
Studies cited by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights come to similar conclusions.
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.
Board Chairman Rick Smith said the board likely will consider revisions to the policy at its 12:30 p.m. May 6 regular meeting.