FAIRMONT — Organizations and a former state senator have come out against the passage of Senate Bill 12.
As written, SB 12 will take away local health departments’ authority to take future action on smoke-free air and other public health policies without approval from county commissioners or the state health officer.
Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White said the bill is something he doesn’t support because political influence doesn’t belong in public health policy.
“Public health has got to be shielded from politics,” he said.
The health department has had total latitude to pass any policy that impacts public health. In Marion County, patrons can smoke in bars and video lottery facilities.
“We chose to have a policy that we thought was enforceable,” said White.
Juliana Curry, chair of the Coalition for Tobacco-Free West Virginia said the coalition is made up of several health advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Association and American Lung Association and several others.
“We specifically focus on policy that will help reduce the burden of tobacco use in West Virginia and for over two decades we have worked on a local level to implement and enact regulations with the help of the Board of Health to prohibit smoking in public places,” said Curry.
The coalition has been successful in that over 30 counties have fully comprehensive regulations. About 65% of the state is covered because of that.
“With that being said, we believe that everyone should have the right to breath smoke-free air and shouldn’t have to work, live, breathe secondhand smoke,” said Curry.
The coalition’s fear with SB 12 passing and county commission oversight it would politicize decisions that are currently being made by the local boards of health.
“We’re afraid we won’t continue to see the progress we were making in the state moving forward because of this bill passing,” said Curry.
Dr. Dan Foster, a former member of the West Virginia Senate, said the bill undermines the opinions of the local health departments. He said because it is politicized, the interest of decisions may not be based on science but rather pressure from constituents.
“The potential is significant that the public health and the citizens of the state suffer,” he said.
Foster said legislators in the state have worked hard for clean indoor air. Foster was a surgeon for years and retired from medicine, and served in the legislature for 10 years.
“Throughout all of that I was a strong proponent of anything tobacco control and clean indoor air ordinances are a major part of that. It changes the culture of a community,” said Foster.
He said there was great success at the local level which could now be at risk because of the new bill.
“There are many other things the local boards of health do, whether it’s related to the pandemic, whether it’s dealing with clean water, clean food, emergency preparedness. They are required to be approved or disapproved in this legislation by these elected officials and it’s not something that would bode well,” said Foster.
Foster said there has been a history of a stand-off between public health and individual rights. He said vaccinations are an example. He said West Virginia is working to attract people to the state, and legislation like SB 12 will deter that.
Foster said he encourages the governor to veto the bill. He said the governor has been impressive as to how he’s listened to the recommendations of his public health experts throughout the pandemic. Foster said if he signs the bill it would be backtracking on good public health decisions.
“What particularly disappointing to me is two of the sponsors of the legislation are physicians who of all people should know the importance of unfettered public health decision making. I find that really hard to believe,” said Foster.
W.Va. Sen. Mike Caputo, D-13, said he voted against SB 12 because he doesn’t believe politics should be played when it comes to public health. He said county commissions appoint health boards in what he hopes is a non-political fashion.
“If someone doesn’t like a decision they made, such as smoking in a public place, could the county commission go in and overturn it? I just don’t think that’s the role of the county commission. I think that’s more the role of the Board of Public Health and that’s why I voted against it,” said Caputo.