Despite report, Putnam County smoking rules unchanged
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bar patrons in Putnam County should still be able to smoke, one county commissioner thinks, even though a national tobacco report gives the county a failing grade when it comes to protecting people from secondhand smoke.
"Everybody seems to be happy," said Commissioner Joe Haynes, who also serves on the county's health board.
In its "State of Tobacco Control" report last month, the American Lung Association gave Putnam County an F for its regulations.
In 2007, Putnam health board members banned smoking in bars and restaurants, but later decided their vote was invalid. When they voted again, board members voted 3-2 to reject the smoking ban, and revert to a 1996 ordinance that allows smoking in restaurants and bars.
Haynes voted in 2007 for the smoking ban, but said last week that the county's current smoking rules are fine with him.
"There are few discussions about it now at the health department and I don't see it being revisited," Haynes said. "When the vote was taken, I was one of the dissenting votes, but I will say, it seems to have worked."
Under the rules, business owners in Putnam County who allow smoking can't let anyone under the age of 18 inside.
Rosey Arbaugh, a longtime employee of Winfield's Riverside Café, a bar that sometimes offers live music and serves food, believes if smoking rules were changed, business would suffer.
"We don't allow smoking through the week until after 2 p.m. because of the lunch crowd," Arbaugh said. "We've never received any complaints and it's not like you're walking into nothing but smoke."
The café has a patio and a lottery room where smokers can go before evening hours and is in the process of purchasing a new smoke heater, which helps circulate the air, she said.
Haynes said that health officials from Kanawha and Cabell counties have contacted members of Putnam's health board several times and asked them to "get on board" and tighten smoking regulations.
"I'm sure [Kanawha and Cabell] get a lot of complaints like 'this is working [in Putnam] so why were you so adamant to ban it here?'" he said.
But Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department, said there's no evidence that businesses suffered after Kanawha County's ban took effect in 2008.
"We've seen businesses' concerns be alleviated," he said. "Initially, they were concerned that business would go down because of it, but we haven't seen any trend to support that.
"In fact, I've had some businesses make comments that they're doing better because many of the nonsmokers now are able to come and patronize."
At the time the regulations were proposed in Putnam, crowds of bar owners and patrons gathered at public meetings to voice concerns. "It got quite heated," Haynes recalled.
Gupta believes, though, that it's not the health department's job to mediate businesses' concerns over smoking when scientific evidence proves the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.
"We must be the champions of the scientific evidence, not the politics of it," Gupta said. "The [health] boards in Cabell and Kanawha took a really courageous step.
"Before, when the Kanawha County Board of Health did it, it was pretty much based on science. Now, the trend has turned itself into where more people and politicians agree this has to be done and it's the most sound way of protecting citizens," Gupta said.
The lung association's report, which tracks state and federal policies and assigns grades based on whether laws are adequately protecting citizens, gave West Virginia an "F" in every category, including funding for tobacco prevention and control programs, smoke-free air, cigarette taxes and cessation coverage.
More than 3,800 West Virginians die each year from tobacco-related causes, according to the report. Tobacco also costs the state economy $1.7 billion in health-care costs and lost productivity, the report states.
Putnam was one of six counties the report assigned an "F," meaning "protections from secondhand smoke are inadequate or non-existent."
Haynes doesn't think Putnam will change its rules until the state mandates it, rather than leaving it up to individual counties.
"People who go in bars are usually smokers," Haynes said. "If you have the desire to have a beer [without smokers], you can do that at Applebee's."
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.