CHESTER - On March 6, just two days after the Hancock County health board gave a second reading to its proposed smoking ban, John Ash, senior vice commander of Chester VFW Post 6450, wrote a letter to county commissioners expressing concern about the effect such a ban would have on local veterans' organizations.
Two months later, those concerns are coming true.
Under the threat of a ban, Post 6450 is putting a temporary moratorium on all charitable donations until its financial picture becomes more clear. Other Hancock County veterans' organizations, as well as Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, may follow suit, said Healy Baumgardner-Nardone, spokeswoman for No2theBan.com, a coalition of organizations, businesses and individuals opposed to the smoking ban proposal.
"It's very serious," said David Ash, commander of the recently-renamed Bob Milby Post 6450.
Post officials in Chester, Newell and New Cumberland say a public smoking ban would so effect their revenues, primarily by driving out-of-state patrons away from their video lottery parlors, that charitable donations to schools, clubs, organizations, volunteer fire departments and law enforcement agencies would have to be severely cut back.
A letter from Post 6450 to organizations seeking funding states, in part, "We have received your request for a donation, and we have tabled it until we know the results of the smoking ban. If the no-smoking ban is approved, we will no longer be able to support the community as we have in the past. It will decrease our income drastically, and we must take care of veterans' needs first. ... If the no-smoking ban is not approved, we will then be able to entertain your request."
The decision to table all requests for funding was made reluctantly - first by the Post 6450 house committee and then by the entire membership, David Ash said.
"We're just planning ahead and waiting to see what happens," he said. "(The ban) may hit us hard; then again, it may not hurt us at all. We just don't know, so we're going to step back and let the fog clear and then make a final decision."
The action by Post 6450, and potentially other American Legion and VFW posts in Hancock County, could put in jeopardy hundreds of thousands of dollars given to organizations each year.
Ash said the Chester post alone donates $300,000 to $500,000 a year. Annual donations help pay for, among other things, coats for needy children, Christmas presents for qualifying students at Allison Elementary, the VFW Oak Glen Volleyball Tournament, equipment and uniforms for Oak Glen sports teams and cheerleaders, high school trips to Charleston for state tournaments, scholarships through Tuition Mission Foundation (formerly Dollars for Scholars), and a nursing scholarship at the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center.
In the past, Post 6450, under Milby's leadership, donated $130,000 to four area fire departments for new equipment, $100,000 for the completion of Oak Glen Middle School, money to outfit a K-9 unit at the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, and $175,000 for a chapel at Locust Hill Cemetery.
The post also gives $10,000 a year to the Chester Centennial Committee for the city's Fourth of July celebration.
Speaking to county commissioners on Thursday, Commander Bill Ross of the Adam Poe VFW Post 3526 in New Cumberland said the veterans' organizations will stay open but their tradition of charitable giving may not survive a smoking ban.
"Those are the first things that are going to be cut," Ross said.
Ash said a smoking ban would drive customers from Ohio and Pennsylvania away from Hancock County's veteran-supported video lottery parlors, which usually house 10 video lottery machines each.
"If we lose that advantage, most or all donations will cease. That's not a threat; it's a fact," John Ash said in his letter to county commissioners.
David Ash estimated that 50 to 60 percent of Post 6450's income comes from video lottery play. An estimated 53 percent of the proceeds goes to the state of West Virginia, with the balance staying with the veterans' organization for operating expenses and other outlays, he 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 Hancock County Clean Air Regulation currently under review by the 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.
The health board meets again at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the New Cumberland Municipal Building.