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Opponents of smoking changes speaking out

September 10, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Opponents of tougher restrictions on smoking in public and work places dominated a public hearing Thursday evening at Hedgesville High School about the proposal.

Among about 130 people who attended the forum on the proposed clean indoor air regulation revisions being considered by the Berkeley County Board of Health, only two people spoke in favor of the changes. More than 15 spoke against the changes prompting sustained applause practically every time by most of the people seated in the school's auditorium.

Many speakers echoed the sentiments of businessman C.B. "Butch" Pennington, who presented members of the Board of Health with a stack of petitions in a cardboard box that he said bore more than 6,000 signatures of people opposed to the new regulations.

"In these hard economic times, we certainly don't need this," said Pennington, who owns three clubs and two liquor stores in the county.

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Pennington predicted the elimination of the exemptions now in place in the existing clean indoor air regulation for bars and clubs would result in a loss of video lottery gaming and liquor tax revenues for the county.

Health Department Administrator Bill Kearns said in the public hearing that the Board of Health would discuss the proposed changes at their next meeting on Sept. 21 in the second floor courtroom of the old Berkeley County Courthouse. Board of Health members George Karos, John Miller III and Joy Buck did not attend the public hearing, but Kearns said they would be given copies of the comments submitted for consideration.

The board could act on the changes as proposed at that time, revise and then approve them, table the regulation or reject the changes being considered altogether, Kearns said.

Kearns said he had received more than 70 comments via the Health Department's Web site and noted that the 30-day public comment period ends today.

Pennington said he believes that some clubs might be forced to close and suggested the county consider alternatives such as requiring installation of air filtration systems or a partial ban on smoking a few days a week. Businesses could place "a big red 'S'" on their doors to alert patrons that smoking is allowed inside their establishment, Pennington said.

Smoking in most hotel and motel rooms also would no longer be allowed in Berkeley County if changes to clean air rules are adopted. The county's current regulation was adopted in 2001.

Among the comments the health department received over the Internet, Kearns said many expressed concern about the overall economic impact of the regulations proposed.

"That is definitely a valid concern," Kearns said. "This Board of Health is not wanting to create a burden for the community. What they are here to do is to protect the public health in this county and that's a big responsibility that they have."

Kearns said about 90 percent of people who submitted comments via the Internet aired concerns about infringement on civil liberties and individual rights, but few offered recommendations on how to reach "a happy medium" on the public health issue.

Christina Mickey, project coordinator with The Smoke-Free Initiative of West Virginia, said the tougher regulations would better protect people working in the hospitality industry.

Mickey has said that waiters and waitresses get four times the amount of lung cancer than any other profession.

About 40 percent of the people who submitted comments indicated they were nonsmokers, but still enjoyed frequenting bars and clubs in the county that allow smoking, Kearns said.

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