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Hancock County smoking ban set to expand

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The Hancock County Board of Health is poised to finish what it started 15 years ago when it first banned smoking in public places.

The original regulation exempted casinos, bars, fraternal organizations, tobacco businesses and the like from having to comply with the ban.

Though it's still in draft form, the board is contemplating a much more stringent rule now that would ban smoking in public places without exception. It also would, as currently written, require designated smoking areas outdoors to be at least 20 feet away from doors or ventilation units to buildings or enclosed areas where smoking is prohibited.

"Our role, as stated in the West Virginia Code, is to ensure public health," Administrator Jackie Huff said. "Above all, the rights of non-smokers have to take precedence over smokers' rights."

The Surgeon General of the United States has concluded there is no "risk-free" level of exposure to secondhand smoke: According to the American Lung Association, it's responsible for nearly 50,000 deaths every year and exacerbates other serious health conditions, such as lung cancer, respiratory infections and asthma. It's considered especially harmful to young children, causing low birth weight and even sudden infant death. Studies suggest smoking reduces workplace productivity and increases absenteeism.

Twenty-six of West Virginia's 55 counties are now smoke-free. Hancock County is one of only six counties in the Mountain State that hasn't updated its smoking regulations since the 1990s.

"It's a huge decision, no doubt about it," board member Rick Smith said. "But, at the end of the day I think the board will make the right decision."

About 30 people turned out for the board's April 1 meeting, which included discussion of the draft regulation. Board members say it's a "working document" and far from final, though they welcomed the comments.

"I think it's been a long time coming, but we welcome the input," Huff said. "I wish we had this much interest all the time."

Vince Azzarello, human resources director at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, said the company recently spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new HVAC system that reduced smoke in the casino by 95 percent."

"We're struggling to stay competitive in our business," he said, adding the "unintended consequences" of a unilateral smoking ban could be devastating.

"I see it as something that could negatively impact us, which also impacts state revenues and jobs," he said.

Bill Ross, commander of New Cumberland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3526, said his members know what to expect when they walk in the door.

"My members pay dues," he said. "They know we have a smoking environment, and they make a conscious decision to come in."

Ross urged the board to "let our members decide if they want to be smoke free or allow smoking," pointing out that veterans fought to preserve America's freedom. 

"How can you tell those men they can't come into my post and smoke cigarettes?" he asked.

Others applauded the proposal, citing the health risk associated with exposure to secondhand smoke.

"There's no safe level," one woman at the meeting said. "Any exposure is harmful. 

"The only way to protect the public is a comprehensive regulation."

Another man said the "vast majority" of Hancock County residents favor a comprehensive ban, "but they're not the ones you hear all the time … they just happen to be the loudest."

"If a business is open to the general public, you should be able to walk in and there be clean air," he said.

Huff said there will be plenty of opportunities for the public to comment in coming months as they tweak the proposal, which she characterized as a work in progress. She said they scheduled the April 1 meeting because board members were being bombarded with calls at their homes.

She said resistance is to be expected.

"It's a cultural change, too, for people," she said, adding that there's no evidence to support suggestions that banning smoking killed business in smoke-free communities. On the contrary, she said, "some people say business has improved" after their communities went smoke-free.