Member of the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition Tim Higgins addresses Upshur County commissioners Thursday morning.

BUCKHANNON – A representative of the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition said smoking is a public health issue – not an issue of personal rights.

The Upshur County Commission at its meeting Thursday heard from two representatives of the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, both of whom asked the commission to designate all outdoor property owned by the county smoke-free and vape-free.

Tim Higgins, one of the representatives, said the ban would decrease the cost of maintenance because the most littered product in the world is cigarette butts, and people die daily – even hourly – from prolonged tobacco use.

Commissioner Terry Cutright said he takes rights and privileges very seriously.

“I have given this a lot of thought, and Dr. (Joseph) Reed knows I take rights and privileges very seriously,” Cutright said. “You are asking us penalize a legal action, and you’re asking us to ban them from doing this on county properties outside.”

Dr. Joseph Reed, medical director of the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department and a member of the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, said tobacco is an addiction, not just a bad habit.

“Tobacco use is a habit plus an addiction, so it’s not only the mind, for the habit, it’s also the body for the addiction,” Reed said.

Cutright responded by saying people who choose to smoke outdoors on county property still aren’t breaking the law.

“Now, these are honest, hardworking people that are not breaking the law,” Cutright said. “Why do we not give them the same consideration when not less than a year ago Dr. Reed was wanting our support on a needle exchange where they give the needle to the addict, giving them the tourniquet and the cooker and they tell them ‘if you want to get control of your addiction, we will get you in touch with the right people and try to help you.”’

Commissioner Kristie Tenney listens as commissioner Terry Cutright interacts with Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition member Tim Higgins Thursday at the commission’s weekly meeting.

Higgins said he understood what Cutright was saying, but argued smoking can affect people who do not smoke, citing a 2007 Stanford study relating to the radius of smoking.

“It is dangerous to people that don’t smoke,” Higgins said. “This is not an issue of personal rights – this is a health issue – and that’s what I’m trying to tell the story of. For goodness sakes, if someone is so blasted addicted, that they have to take a smoke break every 20 minutes, that costs the employer two-and-a-half weeks a year … and think about anybody else that has to go into that facility that may have a child coming with them.”

Cutright said he had thought about entrances and exits to facilities and how they can affect the majority of people.

“I have thought about people going in and out of facilities,” Cutright said. “I am not willing to go along with banning [smoking outdoors] on whole properties, but what I am willing to go along with is a 15-foot radius from any entrance or exit of any county buildings, and a 15-foot radius around any playground.”

Higgins said the 15-foot radius proposition missed the whole point that smoking is a public health issue.

“That 15-foot radius is going to disappear when the temperature goes down to zero,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t take much to just drive down Main Street and see somebody coming out of a building, and they stand there with the door open so they can get keep warm and smoke. I mean at 15 feet, are you going to paint a line there for no smoking? It’s a little ridiculous. Let’s just make it so it says we don’t want you to smoke on our property.”

Reed added a statistic that 26 percent of people in West Virginia are smokers, which means 74 percent are not.

“But that 26 percent, this is their county too,” Cutright replied. “That is what I am willing to do.”

Commissioner Kristie Tenney said she appreciates both representatives’ passions for what they do.

“I’m excited that you’re both passionate and have worked so hard to bring healthy living to Upshur County,” Tenney said. “As Commissioner Cutright mentioned, I ask you to have that same passion for the Harm Reduction Program, because we are wanting to completely prohibit tobacco use, which is great, because we know the effects of that. But yet, if I have this cup of coffee, and I pour water in it, I’m just watering down a cup of coffee and I still have a cup of coffee and I believe that’s masking [the overall addiction epidemic]. Can we take that same passion and address all of the drugs used throughout Upshur County?”

Higgins said their current goal is to try to reduce smoking and help encourage better lung health.

“As a board member of the American Lung Association in the state of West Virginia, we concentrate on smoking and lung health, COPD, asthma, where people can’t breathe,”
Higgins said. “Trust me, if you’ve ever been in a situation where you couldn’t breathe, nothing else in this world matters more.”

Commission president Sam Nolte suggested posting signage that would ask people to be considerate of outdoor public spaces on county property, rather than an outright ban.

Cutright made a motion to post the signage asking people not to smoke on county property, but not banning it and the motion passed.

“Thank you for the discussion, and if you think that you want to try and pass something in the right direction, it’s a step,” Higgins said, “but it needs to be more than a step, it needs to be leap. We’ve been far too behind.”