by Jennifer Reeger
Outside West Point Volunteer Fire Department’s social hall, a cloud of cigarette smoke wafts above a cluster of angry women.
They puff away, getting in a last smoke before the bingo game starts.
Until Sept. 11, the cloud of smoke would have been hanging inside the social hall during Monday night bingo.
But since more stringent regulations for Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act took effect, bingo players across the state have been forced outside to light up.
And they — and some of the fire departments who rely on bingo income — are fired up about that.
“Bingo and smoking — they go together,” Joanne Miller of Unity said, a cigarette in her hand. “Who’s going to buy all the fire trucks?”
While smokers are angry and nonsmokers are elated they can breathe freely during bingo, fire department officials have mixed reactions.
Some fire officials believe the ban will hurt their bottom lines. Others aren’t panicking yet.
Under the new law, fire departments are considered private clubs that can allow smoking for members-only events. But bingos are considered public gatherings where smoking is forbidden, said Holli Senior, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which enforces the ban.
Some fire department leaders said they’ve already seen a decrease in bingo players.
At Springdale Township Volunteer Fire Department in Allegheny County, 15 to 20 fewer players showed up for the first post-smoking-ban bingo.
Even though Springdale had offered a separate nonsmoking bingo room with its own heating, cooling and ventilation, it still must comply with the ban.
“We’re certainly hoping that we get those numbers back,” said President Pam Manning. “We’re hoping that the Legislature and the state listen to the fire departments and realize the more we can earn, the less they have to pay through tax dollars.”
Ron Shannon fears the smoking ban will keep Latrobe’s Free Service Fire Unit No. 6 from buying a new pumper truck.
“Bingo’s our only fundraiser. If that falls through, we’d be in trouble,” said Shannon, 71, the department’s bingo master for the past decade.
Joe Paiano, president of the Sardis Volunteer Fire Department in Murrysville, said the law is unfair since casinos can devote 25 percent of their space to smoking.
“My biggest issue is why can the casinos have it? We’re here doing this to try to fund this place and try to make this place run. I see it really crippling us,” Paiano said.
Claudia Scavo of Plum, Allegheny County, a smoker who frequents bingos at Sardis, Holiday Park and New Kensington, said she may quit — bingo, that is.
“It’s a shame, the fire halls need this money,” she said.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the law, said he wanted a complete smoking ban but didn’t have the votes.
He’s preparing legislation to repeal any exceptions to the law, adding he’s “not particularly pleased” casinos were given an exception.
“We shouldn’t be putting money and the raising of money ahead of people’s health and lives,” Greenleaf said. “I think in the end (fire departments will) benefit by it and their customers will benefit by it.”
One of those thankful customers is Tamara Cline of Greensburg, who is “extremely happy” about the ban.
“I don’t like the smell of it, and I can go home smelling fresh,” she said while waiting for a smokeless West Point bingo to begin. “I think more people will come, because nobody likes the smoke.”
In fact, most people cheered when West Point announced the smoking ban would take effect.
“I think we may lose at first, but I think we will gain people that couldn’t come before because of the smoke,” West Point Vice President Richard Stinebiser said.
But Beverly Woods of Latrobe said she won’t be playing bingo.
“I understand restaurants. I understand hospitals and I understand nursing homes, but a bingo hall?” she said. “I’ll play on the computer where I can smoke at home.”
Some fire departments allowed smoking even after the ban took effect.
Turkeytown-South Huntingdon Township Fire Department President Valerie Goldsworthy said she couldn’t get straight answers from state officials she called as to how the ban affected bingo, so they have allowed smoking.
“Really, it seems like nobody knows what the exemptions are or they are confused,” she said.
She wants to gather some legislators and other state officials to meet with her department and others to air concerns and better understand the rules.
“I want to be able for them to define to us truly: What is it?” she said.
Senior said the health department, which will enforce the law based on complaints, will not issue fines right away. Instead, they will educate the violator.
Then fines starting at $250 can be levied. A third offense in a 12-month period will bring a $1,000 fine.
In Fayette County, smokers lit up Tuesday night at the Hopwood Volunteer Fire Department’s weekly bingo game. Officials said they didn’t believe the law applied to them.
“If we have go to nonsmoking, we’ll lose 40 percent of our crowd,” firefighter Bob Bowland said. “How are we supposed to meet our bills?”
Smokers there said they’d rather give up the game than their smokes.
“It will stop a lot of people,” said Wanda Layhue of Filbert. “I’d quit coming. I wouldn’t enjoy bingo without a cigarette.”
Others said they have longed for clean air.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Robin Ruggieri, a nonsmoker who predicted a smoking ban would attract new players.
But Ted Hale believes the ban will hurt the Library Volunteer Fire Company in Allegheny County “very badly.”
Hale, chairman of the department’s board, said about 30 fewer people attended bingo last Sunday.
“We live on bingo,” he said. “Without bingo we’d have a hard time existing.”
Harrison City Volunteer Fire Department President Kip Good Jr. isn’t worried yet. The first bingo after the ban was down five to 10 people, he said.
“Once the people that didn’t come find out they can’t go to other bingos and smoke, hopefully, they’ll come back to our bingo,” Good said.
Outside Harrison City’s bingo hall, about a dozen women got in their last puffs.
Stella Moore never smokes at home, but she likes to light up at bars and casinos.
“I had to go buy licorice and suckers,” she said of her cigarette alternatives.
“We’re adults,” said Gloria Kline of Level Green. “I think it’s wrong to take that from people, and the fire departments that need the money.”