Smokers Rally

Board of health may vote on smoking ban next week
MARTINSBURG – Pete Snow may have to breath with the assistance of an oxygen tank, but that didn’t stop the senior citizen and Berkeley County war veteran from joining scores of protesters Wednesday night in Martinsburg for a rally and march to show support for opposition to a proposed smoking ban.

The ban, proposed by the Berkeley County Health Department, would eliminate smoking at private bars, clubs and fraternal organizations.

“I just don’t believe they should take the rights away from the private clubs. I mean I’m on oxygen, but if I don’t want to go, I can go someplace else. Don’t take rights away from other people,” Snow said while standing amidst the protesters at the square in downtown Martinsburg. “I think too much of this is going on in my country today. Rights are being taken away.”

The protest was organized by local businessman and smoking-ban opponent Butch Pennington, who owns three clubs and two liquor stores. The board of health could vote on the ban at their next regular meeting, which is at 4 p.m. Monday at the old Berkeley County Courthouse across the street from the square where protesters gathered.

“We, as bar and club owners, are concerned about the economic impact that this will have on our businesses. We feel that it’s going to be negative impact,” he said. “…We’re going to march and chant down the street here so that we can let people know that we want to protect our rights. Our civil liberties are at stake here.”

Pennington presented Berkeley County Health Department officials with a petition with 6,000 signatures from citizens opposed to the ban last Thursday and said he hopes to reach a compromise with health officials on the issue.

One suggestion calls for a grandfather clause to be enacted that would enable businesses that already allow smoking to continue to do so, but mandate any new businesses that open be smoke free.

“Or we are looking for maybe an alternative, like smoking at the bar only or putting a big red ‘S’ on your club’s front door denoting smoking inside, or even smoking four days a week and three days a week no smoking,” Pennington said.

Other suggestions would be to allow businesses to continue to allow smoking so long as they installed an air filtration system.

“Any of those compromises we are after, but better yet, just leave it alone. We have a good smoking ordinance now that works,” Pennington said.

That smoking ordinance, which has been on the books since 2001, bans smoking at public places, except for private bars, clubs and fraternal organizations. Protesters opposed to the ban Wednesday night amassed at the square in Martinsburg before marching to Berkeley County’s government offices on West John Street.

Equipped with a megaphone, Pennington led protesters in boisterous chants such as “What do we want? Freedom! What do we want? Choice!” and “Smoking, smoking, it’s OK! Please don’t take my choice away!”.

Numerous motorists who drove past the line of protesters honked their horns to show their support.

“I’ve been smoking for 50 years. It’s my choice. I pay my taxes. I pay more taxes than people that don’t smoke,” protester Tammy Rosenberry, of Inwood, said. “Where are they going to get the money that I spend on taxes if they take my choice to smoke away and I don’t buy cheap cigarettes?”

Others, like local bar owner, Brandon Widner, who owns the Limerick Irish Pub on North Queen Street in Martinsburg, said he feared what a smoking ban might mean for local small business.

“I mean this can totally destroy my business. I sunk my life savings into it two years ago when I moved here,” he said. “It just chokes me up.”

Widner lived in Montgomery County, Md., where a similar smoking ban was enacted, before moving to Martinsburg. The smoking ban there, he said, led to the demise of many businesses.

“It’s going to destroy a lot of small businesses. Myself, I’m staying afloat in this recession, but just barely. I mean I’ve got my nose up above water, but that’s about it,” he said.

Wayne Casto, of Pikeside, brought a full-sized American flag to the protest, which he carried slung over his shoulder during the march to the county government offices.

“This is my constitutional right to a choice, whether I patronize a business that allows smoking or not to patronize it. The county health department is trying to take that right away,” he said. “Therefore, I am standing up for my constitutional rights.”

Some non-smokers even joined in on the protest based on principles.

“I don’t smoke and I don’t drink, but I’m here supporting my rights,” World War II veteran George Keller said. “That’s what I’m here for – to protect our rights. If they keep on taking them away, then one day they’ll keep on going.”

Frederick Kemman, who lives in the county just outside of the Martinsburg city limits, joined in the protest along with his wife and school-aged son, who carried a sign that read “I’ll never smoke, but I’ll support your right to”.

“These people have a right. Bars and restaurants like that are privately owned. Why should the government be telling them what to do inside their own restaurant and bar?” Kemman asked. “That’s what it really boils down to.”

Jeff Becker doesn’t smoke marlboro-cigarettes, but he’s been a cigar aficionado for the past 15 years. He said he joined the protest because he was afraid the ban might lead to slippery slope if passed.

“What’s next? Are they going to ban smoking in your private homes (or) private cars? Then what are they going to do? They’re going to say well, for your health, we’re going to shut down the fast food restaurants,” he said. “There’s a cat down here at the cigar shop that lives in the cigar shop and it breathes second hand smoke all day long. It’s 18-years-old.”

At the end of the protest, Pennington thanked those who gathered for their support of local bars and clubs and applauded them for demonstrating for democracy.

“Democracy is alive,” he said. “This is our county. That’s our health board. They ultimately should listen to us. I think that they’ll be able to hopefully reach a compromise with us. I feel with every confidence in the world that we are going to succeed on this issue.”


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