Despite emotional, last-minute pleas from Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort employees, the Hancock County Board of Health on Tuesday unanimously approved an indoor, countywide smoking ban with no exemptions for gambling facilities.
The 5-0 vote makes Hancock County the 29th county in West Virginia to adopt a smoking ban. The new regulation, which takes effect July 1, bans smoking in all restaurants, gaming facilities, private clubs, sports arenas, places of employment and concert venues, as well as certain outdoor public places.
In the end, health board members said their chief aim, the promotion of public health, will be good for the Hancock County economy.
"It's two different issues - revenue and life - and you can't compare the two," said health board member Rick Smith. "This was not in any way an easy process or a decision made in haste."
Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern, wearing the same red-lettered "Save Our Job" T-shirt as his employees, seemed visibly shaken by Tuesday's vote. He fears the smoking ban, coupled with increased competition from a soon-to-open casino near Youngstown, could cut into Mountaineer's revenue by as much as 20 percent.
"We are disheartened and dismayed with the actions by the (board). We were hoping that the board would listen to the compromises we set forth," he said. "What we do now and when-we don't know that yet."
Christina Mickey, project coordinator for the Smoke-Free Initiative of West Virginia, said the mentality of some smoking ban opponents that "the sky is falling" is unwarranted.
"It's more how the business owner accepts and transitions to a status of a smoke-free environment, and makes the most of this change, that impacts their business," she said. "Overall, boards of health continue to report a great buy-in from their communities and great compliance levels."
Under the policy adopted Tuesday, any designated outdoor smoking areas will have to be at least 20 feet from an entrance, exit or ventilation unit. The regulation does not apply to private residences, including individual apartments or housing units that are part of a multi-unit apartment building.
The rule gives the county Health Department enforcement powers, including the authority to inspect for compliance, take complaints and file charges. Violation of the regulation is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine.