BUCKHANNON – Tensions smoldered at the Upshur County Board of Health’s meeting Thursday, following the board’s decision to adopt the revised Upshur County Clean Indoor Air Act, effectively banning smoking from all inside areas of fraternal organizations, motels, hotels and bingo halls.
One representative of the Buckhannon Moose Lodge No. 598 threatened to sue the Upshur County Health Department’s board of health for anticipated loss of revenue, while others expressed their anger at the outcome of the meeting.
“They will be sued for loss of revenue, and you can put that in the paper,” Angel Casto with the Moose Lodge told The Record Delta.
Members of several private organizations, including the Moose Lodge and VFW Post 3663, had come to the meeting to urge the board not to adopt the new measure, which they said would result in a significant loss of business and revenue. Meanwhile, several members of county and state organizations seeking to snuff out tobacco use spoke in favor of the revised ban, which they argued could improve the health of Upshur County residents.
The amendments went into effect as soon as the board adopted the revised version of Upshur County Clean Indoor Air Act, board of health chairperson Charliena Eubank said Sunday. The amendments to the act mean smoking is now no longer permitted in retail stores that sell tobacco products; designated rooms of hotel-motels; bed-and-breakfasts; inns and cabins; private parties at fire halls; and “the conference or meeting rooms or public and private assembly rooms of hotels, motels and fraternal organizations while these places are being utilized for private functions,” according to a copy of the revised act.
Attendees who had signed up to speak were granted time to do so at the outset of the meeting.
Representing the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, Tim Higgins encouraged the board to pass the changes, citing a number of statistics from the Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia and the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health. Higgins said annual health care costs directly caused by smoking total $690 million, while smoking-related productivity losses in West Virginia add up to $1.01 billion per year. He also argued that banning smoking doesn’t cause businesses to lose employees or revenue, mentioning an economic impact study of smoke-free laws on restaurants and bars in nine states.
“West Virginia is included in this,” Higgins told the board. “The results, in West Virginia, smoke-free laws were associated with a significant increase of approximately 1 percent in restaurant employment and in remaining states, there was found to be no significant associations between smoke-free laws and employment or sales in restaurants and bars.”
Dr. Joseph Reed, medical director of the Upshur County Health Department, also mentioned several statistics in a prepared statement. Reed said the average cost of a pack of cigarettes in West Virginia is $5.50.
“At a pack a day for 40 years, that cost is about $80,000,” Reed said. “The average loss of life in smokers is reported as 14 years. The cost of medical care in West Virginia is reported as over $1 billion. Twenty-seven percent of our expectant moms are exposed to tobacco smoke during their pregnancy, and we know that increases (the chances of) smaller and more premature babies, with all the related costs and problems.”
But Phil McGhee, who identified himself as a nonsmoker, said the new regulation wouldn’t have any effect on the actual behavior of smokers.
“You give me all these statistics that I hear about what cost it is – but it’s not going to change these smokers,” McGhee said. “If they still want to smoke, they’re going to smoke. The statistics might go up, they might go down, but statistics have nothing to do with a person’s right to do what they want, whether you allow them to do it in the Moose or in their backyard.”
Larry Brown, commander of the VFW Post 3663, said the loss of revenue from passing the smoking ban would have dire consequences for the community.
“There’s a lot of stuff that would be canceled out – funerals, bridge dedications, flags. We spent three hours yesterday putting out the flags. Go out and look at it. It looks awful nice,” Brown said. “I think you’re wrong, but the way I see it, the decision’s already made after you read yesterday’s paper (The Record Delta).”
Brown was referring to a letter to the editor submitted to the Delta by Reed, who said he had sent it in Sunday, Oct. 29. The letter, which ran in the Nov. 1 edition of the Delta, urged residents to voice their support for the expanded smoking ban.
Eubank, the chair of the health board, explained that the newspaper runs letters to the editor once a week (Wednesday) and that anybody can submit them.
Casto claimed others had submitted letters in opposition of the ordinance, but when she was asked by The Record Delta who had submitted those letters, Casto refused to answer.
Sara Riffle, who had previously identified herself as an employee of the Moose Lodge, told the board of health that the Moose, Elks, Eagles and other organizations are private and should not be subject to the revised smoking regulation.
“We are a private lodge,” Riffle said. “We pay dues to come in there. If we want to smoke, we should be allowed to smoke. If you don’t smoke and you don’t like it, don’t come in. But you guys want to put us out on the street smoking … or put us on the sidewalk.”
Casto said the new health department regulation would force smokers to smoke outside, which would result in young children and families being subjected to secondhand smoke during community events, such as the W.Va. Strawberry Festival.
“Now, picture yourself strolling down Kanawha Street during Strawberry Festival with your family, your children, your grandchildren, how would you feel about having to walk through secondhand smoke on city streets, simply because you, the health board, decided to put smokers out on the street rather than keep them in their hotel rooms, their bars, their bingo halls and their private halls of fraternal organizations?” Casto said. “The health board’s intentions are admirable when it comes to a public facility, but personal choice and freedom should not be dictated by small government in the matters of private facilities or clubs. It should be dictated by … the establishment.”
The City of Buckhannon passed Ordinance 372 in 2013 that already prohibits the use of any tobacco product in public areas where fairs and festivals are conducted.
Riffle and Casto said they felt the health department was purposely targeting – and discriminating against – smokers by passing the regulation.
Reed replied, “The health department is charged with the responsibility of the [public’s] health … and that’s the decision that we’re trying to make.”
Riffle said, “It seems like you’re singling out smokers is what it seems like.”
Following the public comment period and several other agenda items, board of health member Larry Carpenter made a motion to adopt the revised smoking act as it was presented. The motion was seconded by board member Amy Queen and passed unanimously, with Carpenter, Eubank, Queen and board member Michael Livesay voting for the revised ban. Board member Teresa Kee was absent from Thursday’s meeting for medical reasons.
Efforts to pass the revised changes have been in the works since the health board’s May meeting, when the board of directors passed preliminary changes to the Upshur Clean Indoor Air Regulation and had been set for a final vote at its September meeting. However, a lack of a quorum prevented the board of directors from voting on the measure, which the board then tabled at its Oct. 12 meeting.