NEW CUMBERLAND - The Hancock County Health Board faced a barrage of comments Wednesday at a public hearing regarding the Hancock County Clean Air Regulation, which would effectively ban smoking in most public places in the county.
Bus loads of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort employees filed into the New Cumberland Municipal Building sporting t-shirts that read "SAVE MY JOB" in capital red letters. They came to voice their opposition to the ban, which could potentially cost jobs at the casino as well as local gaming revenue.
Hancock County public health officials have repeatedly highlighted the dangers of exposure to secondhand smoke, but opponents of the ban implored them to consider the potential economic impact.
"I've heard from the board that this is a health issue, not an economic issue. The two cannot be separated from a practical standpoint. The employees who lose their jobs lose insurance. Not only should the board consider the economic impact, I propose that it is your obligation to consider the economic impact of the proposed regulation as it is written," commented Vince Azzarello, senior director of human resources at Mountaineer.
Others echoed Azzarello's assessment, including Jeffrey Sayre, an analyst at Mountaineer.
"The United States Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Resources wrote: 'Poor adults are more likely to be in poor health, to be uninsured and to die at younger age than unpoor adults.' Banning smoking will make people healthier, but hurting the economy will make people less healthy. But it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Why don't we try to make the air a little better and protect the economy at the same time?" Sayre asked.
Sayre also apologized for comments he made to the board in previous discussions. He said that the proposed ban would result in layoffs at Mountaineer and the loss of $182 million in gaming revenue a year.
"Compromise" was the word of the night for opponents of the ban.
"Long story short I believe this board will find a compromise, because it's in the best interest of all," commented John MacMillen, another Mountaineer employee.
Chris Kern, general manager of Mountaineer Casino, asked to board to consider the long-term effects of the proposed ban on the county and its residents.
"Mountaineer currently has over 1,200 team members. Over 1,000 of those team members are full-time and have benefits. If this ban passes with no exceptions, some of those people will lose their jobs and/or their benefits. The West Virginia lottery has forecasted $1.3 million less paid to the county in taxes on an annual basis if this passes without exemptions. Where is that money going to be made up?" Kern asked.
Kern said they have offered compromises to the board including a plan to make 80 percent of the hotel, 10 percent of the casino floor, all restaurants, all public spaces and the trackside facility non-smoking areas.
"We are simply asking that the board act similarly to the 28 other boards of health in West Virginia that have exemptions in their clean air acts," Kern said. "If the ban gets passed with some of the exemptions or compromises that we have put forward, we are willing to work with any team member who still works in a smoking environment so that if they don't want to work in that environment, we are willing to place them in a non-smoking environment, which would make it their own personal choice."
Of the five casinos in West Virginia, only the Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, and Mardi Gras prohibit smoking.
Mountaineer currently permits smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby and trackside. Smoking also is permitted in the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room. Three of Mountaineer's restaurants - Riverfront Buffet, La Bonne Vie and Big Al's - are non-smoking, as is one of the slot gaming rooms.
Supporters of the ban who spoke included Linda Holmstrand, regional tobacco prevention coordinator for the American Lung Association in Wheeling. She pointed out that air filtration systems may remove the smell of tobacco smoke, but nicotine and negative health effects are not eliminated.
Walter Angelini, Weirton attorney, said he supported the board's initiative for clean air.
"I am hearing very little tonight about the health issue. And it is this board's job to promote health. Based on comments tonight it seems like the health problems are just an acceptable risk, the risk of doing business. I don't agree with that. I'm sorry that the rest of the majority doesn't feel the same. But you are here as a health board, and not as economists or a chamber of commerce. I urge you to stay the course and consider the health of the citizens and leave the economics to the other branch," Angelini said.
Numerous ban supporters presented examples of family members and friends lost to cancer caused by smoking or second hand smoke.
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."
If the policy is adopted, Hancock County would join 28 other West Virginia counties that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment, according to the American Lung Association.