By Tony Rutherford
Huntington, WV (HNN) – Temperatures hovered under thirty, a misty snow batted through the air, a frigid wind stung faces. Yet, about 100 outspoken community members squeezed into a Cabell County Health Department conference room for a public hearing on banning smoking in bars, video lottery establishments, and virtually any public venue
The vocal, yet restrained, standing room only audience yelled support for speakers against the ban. Those who spoke in its favor endured some hostility. Audience members demanded statistics to which one physician referred. Another man telling that his son plays in a band with asthma was jeered with a ‘tell him not to go to a bar’ styled retort.
Among the speakers, a flamboyant man wearing a white fur coat and pink seemed to take command of the crowd.
Kerry Ellison, owner of the Blackhawk Saloon in Kanawha County, traveled from Charleston to speak at the hearing. Ellison has become the poster man for defiant Kanawha County smokers. He has refused to ban smoking at his business.
SMOKERS WELCOME AT BLACKHAWK BAN OR NO BAN
A “Smokers Welcome” sign hangs outside the saloon, but Ellison has apparently been the only bar owner who has been charged with violation of the ordinance. At a February 2009 Kanawha Magistrate hearing, he defended himself telling the court, “I’m not the smoking police.”
He has been fined $400 each for violation of the ordinance in August and October; smoke still rises at the Blackhawk.
“I started as a county wide opponent and I’ve become an unwitting statewide opponent,” Ellison proclaimed.
The businessman stated, “it’s okay to have an ordinance, but let it make sense. The legislature has mandated that you can smoke in bingo parlors. It’s legal for them to do that. There’s no reason second hand smoke can go faster to the lungs in a bar than a bingo parlor.”
He continued, “You can take your child into a bingo parlor and smoke. In a bar, you have to be 21 years old to be in there. It’s a choice. Somewhere along the line we have to let the choice go to the people.” Ellison then asked, “do you remember the [proposed] Barbie ban,” referring to a state legislator who wanted to forbid the possession of Barbie dolls as they allegedly promote an unhealthy image for young girls.
“Keep in mind that whatever ordinance you put in place, it will diminish your revenue. The health inspector is looking for second hand smoke. If I come inside I’ll see smoke, I’m not going to see the rat feces in the bread door in the back. Let him put his efforts in the bread room [and kitchen?] where the customers can’t go.”
Calling enforcement a “nightmare,” Ellison stressed “you don’t need a law or an ordinance disguised as a law” when the issue can be “solved by choice. Over here, there’s a bar where they smoke. Over there, there’s a bar where they do not smoke. Go to whichever one you want to. This ordinance takes away individual’s rights.”
Admitting “I’m a nonsmoker. I’ve never had a cigarette in my life and I hate the nasty things,” the flashy dressed owner revealed. “If there’s a demand for a smoke free bar, they will pop up, this is capitalism.”
HEALTH CONSCIOUS PEOPLE DON’T GO TO BARS
“Bars are not where you go if you are health conscious ” Ellison declared to the delight of a majority of those in the room. “I keep hearing of employees, vendors, and inspectors that have to go in there. Same thing in the [coal] mines; they don’t shut the mines down.
Observantly, Ellison stated, “the way there county to county ordinances are written up, the smokers are not the violators. I come in here and smoke a cigarette; I did not violate anything. The bar owner gets busted.”
Instead of banning cigarette smoking for health reasons , he suggested “outlawing hand shaking. It’s unsanitary and unhealthy and it directly spreads germs,” Ellison said subtlety referring to the repeated H1N1 campaign to wash your hands to stop the spread of the flu. “If you see me after the meeting, salute me, but don’t shake my hand.”
WE HAVEN’T BACKED DOWN
Catching up with the defiant owner after the hearing, Ellison filled in HNN on his one year crusade against the Kanawha County Health Department’s ban.
“We haven’t backed down, we’re still doing the same thing we have been doing all along. They have written me up close to thirty times. I was convicted on one charge, and last week, I went down [to the court]. I pled guilty to one and they dropped the other four. I have two convictions at $400 apiece,” Ellison explained.
From the bar owner’s perspective, it’s a double insult for the Kanawha Health Department to “invoice me $25 every time [a] health department [inspector] comes in,” Ellison explained.
While health department officials in Charleston hope the convictions will encourage compliance, Ellison remains defiant and contends he has been selected out for enforcement. “I absolutely think I have been singled out. They are [still] smoking in all the bars. I’m the only one with a ‘smokers welcome’ sign up.”
Ellison who plans to appeal his conviction to Kanawha County Circuit Court does not know of the conviction of any other bar owner for violation of the ordinance. “I’m the only one they have convicted,” he said, adding that some owners have received “warnings” but no one has yet been cited except him.
Meanwhile, video game room owner and Chesapeake, Ohio, councilman Paul Hart made an inverse sign proposal for Cabell County.
Suggesting “we are signed to the max,” Hart first displayed warning signs for those under 21, for alcohol purchases, for identification warnings, warnings for pregnant women, and “gambling can be hazardous to your health” for lottery products. He complained that we can not advertise the lottery products to “get people to come through the door.”
“I had these made today,” Hart asked, displaying a sign that smoking is allowed inside along with a litany of health warnings regarding smoking. The crowd erupted with applause.
“There’s no ambiguity. Smoking is bad. Allow me freedom to make my own decisions, please, allow us freedom,” Hart concluded to another round of applause.
Note: The Cabell County Health Department will continue taking written submissions on the proposed ban. HNN will be printing a balanced article this week.