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.
Buses full of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort employees filed into the New Cumberland Municipal Building sporting T-shirts that read "SAVE MY JOB" in red capital letters. They came to voice their opposition to the ban, which could potentially cost jobs at the casino as well as local gaming revenue.
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.
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.
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," Vince Azzarello, senior director of human resources at Mountaineer, said.
Compromise was the word of the night for opponents of the ban.
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 forecast $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 said.
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."
Supporters of the ban who spoke included Walter Angelini, a Weirton attorney, who said he supported the board's initiative for clean air.
"I am hearing very little tonight about the health issue," Angelini said. "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."
In Ohio County, members of the Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health are again discussing a possible expansion of a smoking ban. They are also keeping an eye on what happens in Hancock County. The proposed expansion has been tabled for a few years after the Ohio County board decided the public wasn't ready for a change. The tabled measure calls for prohibiting smoking entirely at the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.