NEW CUMBERLAND-With the Hancock County health board expected to vote on a countywide smoking ban next week, public debate continues to center on the potential economic, rather than health, effects of the policy.
Opponents of the proposed ban openly worry that it will have a negative impact on the tourism and gaming industry in Hancock County, especially Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, veterans' organizations and limited video lottery cafes.
Supporters of the Hancock County Clear Air Regulation point to the health benefits of eliminating second-hand smoke in public places.
Mountaineer racing department employees break out of the starting gate in a recent attempt to defeat a proposed smoking ban for Hancock County. Their T-shirts say “Save My Job.” Facilities, slots, marketing, and food and beverage employees also have participated in the publicity campaign. (Submitted photo)
The regulation, which is still a draft, 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 28 other West Virginia counties that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment, according to the American Lung Association.
This week, Mountaineer, among the most vocal opponents of the ban, upped its campaign by having employees don "Save My Job" T-shirts and break out of the racetrack starting gate for multiple Facebook photo opportunities.
The campaign by Hancock County's largest employer is intended as a show of unity to the community, Mountaineer General Manger Chris Kern said.
"While we await the final decision of the board, our employees continue to pull together to safeguard their jobs with these types of efforts," Kern said. "We are all hopeful that the economic impact of a smoking ban on the state, county and Mountaineer will be considered at the time of the vote and that certain exemptions will be allowed."
Kern recently met with Hancock County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff to reiterate the "concessions" the racetrack casino is willing to make in exchange for certain policy exemptions.
Among other things, Mountaineer would make "reasonable accommodations" for non-smoking employees who don't want to work in smoking areas of the building, Kern said.
Currently, 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.
Kern said Mountaineer would be willing to make 80 percent of its hotel, 10 percent of the gaming floor and 100 percent of public areas-restaurants, trackside areas, banquet and meeting facilities, the Harv, the spa and the gift shop-non-smoking.
Mountaineer officials have said that an all-encompassing smoking ban, with no exceptions, would reduce business at the casino by 20 percent, which could result in layoffs and less tax revenue for Hancock County.
Mountaineer lobbyist Nelson Robinson told the West Virginia Racing Commission earlier this month that such a ban would be "devastating" for Hancock County, according to the website BloodHorse.com. "For some reason the Hancock County Board of Health does not believe an economic impact will take place," he said.
Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis said he's convinced a smoking ban would result in a 15 percent drop in revenue for Mountaineer. The impact of that, plus another 15 percent from the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio, which opens in November, would hurt Hancock County's bottom line, he said.
"Thirty percent of $3.2 million (in taxes) is $1 million. We cannot afford to lose $1 million in revenue," Davis told the health board in July.
Davis said he doesn't think the board will allow any exemptions, but he hopes the board will delay enforcement for a year because the Hancock County Commission's budget is already set for the current fiscal year.
"That would allow time for the dust to settle, to see what the impact of the (Austintown) facility was. ... You could get a true number of what impact the smoking ban is having on the gaming industry," he said.
Davis said 70 percent of Mountaineer's clientele comes from Ohio. "Mountaineer has a niche right now. People who want to smoke and gamble come to Mountaineer," he said.
Davis' fellow commissioners-Mike Swartzmiller and Dan Greathouse-said they have their own concerns, but they'll respect whatever decision the health board makes.
"It's a health board. ... I would think they would make a decision based on health facts," Swartzmiller said, noting that he would support some sort of phase-in for the policy.
"I think they'll make the correct decision," Greathouse said. "I don't put people on boards to second-guess them."
The five-member board-Chairman Rick Smith, Vice Chairman Jill Orenzuk, Wilma Boring, Phil Rujak and James Pryor-is appointed by the commissioners to staggered five-year terms.
Rujak was reappointed in June, and Greathouse said he was surprised no one else sought nomination to the board. "I thought somebody would be right on that, trying get someone appointed who was on their side," he said.
New Cumberland Mayor Linda McNeil said that, while she recognizes the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke, she does not support a "total" smoking ban.
"I have no doubt in my mind that the health board wants to improve the health of the people. I would like to see them go in the direction of education rather than banning," she said. "I would be glad to help in that regard. I have a great appreciation for what education can do, especially when you catch these people in their formative years."
McNeil is a nurse by profession and, for much of her career, worked as nursing supervisor for Arizona State University Student Health in Tempe, Ariz.
McNeil said Mountaineer should get some consideration for the steps it's taken to reduce the effects of second-hand smoke in its facilities. "They've been responsible employers, in my experience," she said. "I think we need to be very cautious and temperate in how we proceed."
The official draft approved in July bans 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 bans smoking in public parks, including pavilions, playgrounds, 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.
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.
In July, the board removed golf courses from the regulation and made a slight change to a provision having to do with the property around health care facilities.
The board meets at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the New Cumberland Municipal Building.