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Berkeley County looks to toughen anti-smoking law

July 23, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The Berkeley County Board of Health is reviewing its regulations for "clean indoor air" and could remove exemptions that allow smoking in bars, fraternal organizations and other places with public access, Health Department Administrator Bill Kearns told the Berkeley County Commission Thursday.

"Our current ordinance has been in effect since 2001 ... and it's went well, but things are changing in the state, things are changing in the nation," Kearns said.

"And whereas Berkeley County at one point was leading in protecting the public heath ... in regards to clean indoor air, now we're kind of falling behind, and as the second largest county in the state, we can't afford to do that," Kearns said during an informational session with the commission and Martinsburg City Council.

Removing the exemptions could affect more than 90 establishments, health department officials said Thursday.

Any proposed changes by the county's five-member health board are expected to be finalized at an Aug. 10 meeting, Kearns said after the session.

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At least one public hearing, and possibly two, would be scheduled to gather input on the proposed changes to the public smoking regulations. The hearing would be during a public comment period that Kearns said had to be at least 30 days before the health board would be able to vote on proposed revisions.

Those now exempt from complying with the current ordinance are:

  • "Free standing" bars, which are defined in the regulations as establishments that have 50 percent or greater of total sales in alcoholic beverages.

  • Private residences, except when used as child-care or health-care facilities

  • Hotel/motel rooms rented to guests.

  • Conference or meeting rooms or public and private assembly rooms of hotels, motels and fraternal organizations while they are used for private functions.

    Christina Mickey, project coordinator with The Smoke-Free Initiative of West Virginia, told the commission health boards in 18 of West Virginia's 55 counties already have adopted tighter restrictions to eliminate "secondhand smoke in all workplaces" and Harrison County's new regulations are expected to go into effect next year.

    Funded and operated by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' division of tobacco prevention, The Smoke-Free Initiative's mission is to educate state and local officials and the general public about secondhand smoke and associated issues.

    In a PowerPoint presentation, Mickey noted a particular interest in protecting individuals working in the hospitality industry.

    "We know waiters and waitresses get four times the amount of lung cancer than any other profession," Mickey said. "And this is from a preventable source of illness."

    "Working an eight-hour shift in some of these places is equivalent to smoking one to two packs of cigarettes a day," Mickey added.

    Mickey said any entity that offers goods and services is considered to be a public place, regardless if they charge membership dues or "pick and choose" who they allow in.

    In an interview after Mickey's presentation, board of health member Bob Burkhart said he always has had "mixed emotions" about adopting public smoking regulations.

    "How far do you go to protect people from themselves?" Burkhart asked.

    Burkhart said at least one bar owner has questioned whether a ban on smoking in their establishment would prompt customers to go to a neighboring county that hasn't implemented the stricter rules.

    "We still have yet to see (any) reputable studies that show requiring people to step outside to smoke impacts their business in any way," Mickey said. "We actually see an increase or we don't see any change at all -- people still come and engage in public commerce, they just step out to smoke ..."

    The other members of the board of health are Martinsburg Mayor George Karos, John Miller III, Ruby Foltz and Joy Buck.

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