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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Smoking Ban Complaints

Since Ohio enacted a voter-approved indoor smoking cigarettes ban at businesses four years ago, 124 complaints have been investigated in Washington County, with eight warnings and 11 fines issued.

Smoking is prohibited in most indoor, public places under the ban, which went into effect in 2007. State and local health officials have issued more than 2,300 fines totaling more than $2.2 million since May 2007 but about $1.5 million had not been paid as of April 30, according to The Associated Press.

The 11 fines in Washington County have totaled $5,400, with $800 remaining unpaid from four violations at three businesses.

Barbie Skinner, owner of the Station Carryout and Lounge, Belpre, said she was notified of a violation at her business in December 2007, but says she was never invoiced for the $100 "first" infraction.

A review of state records by The Marietta Times this week indicates she may be right. An "open" case was listed on records held by the Ohio Department of Health but there was no mention of the business on records generated by the Ohio Attorney General's office, which attempts to collect fines if they are not paid within 45 days.

State officials could not immediately explain the omission.

"(The Ohio Department of Health) sent me a letter and it said if I didn't pay it they would send me an invoice," Skinner said. "They didn't send me an invoice and I sure wasn't going to ask for it."

Skinner said her business is in compliance with the law now but that she still opposes the state imposing restrictions on privately owned businesses. She said she wasn't sure what she would do if she were to be contacted later about paying the fine.

"I'd have to talk to my husband about that," she said. "It's been so long it ought to be null and void by now."

Mary Eddy, owner of the Norwood Tavern on Greene Street in Marietta, was fined twice by the state for smoking cigarettes violations. Her fines totaled $1,200, which she has paid.

Eddy also said her business is in compliance with the smoking cigarettes ban but that she was reluctant to pay the fines because so many others have not and because the fines are being challenged.

"As far as I know, not one individual has been fined -only businesses," Eddy said. "It doesn't seem fair that they're only going after businesses."

Eddy said she challenged her second fine, which was for $1,000, but lost.

"I wasn't in the business at the time but their position was that my bartender works for me and represents me," she said. "So I paid the fine. I really don't think it's fair to the people who have paid their fines that so many others haven't paid."

The worst offender in the county has been The Four Seasons Bar, 131 Second St., which between June 2008 and April 2009 was cited three times for a total of $3,200 in fines, which were paid. No one at the business could be reached for comment this week.

Other businesses in the county who have been fined either declined to comment or could not be reached.

According to state health department officials, the number of smoking cigarettes complaints has decreased each year, from nearly 22,000 in 2007 to about 6,800 last year.

Those at the Ohio Department of Health believe complaints are down because most businesses comply with the law, but there's no way to know for certain, spokeswoman Jennifer House said.

"Statewide we have seen complaints decrease from 2007 to 2011," House said. "Currently we're seeing 200 to 250 complaints each week and every complaint is investigated."

When a violation is found, the department sends out invoices for fines and those that go unpaid after 45 days are referred to the attorney general, she said.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike DeWine, told the Associated Press that the office tries to collect and sometimes has to hire a special counsel to collect a fine on its behalf. The attorney general's office has referred 339 smoking cigarettes cases to the special counsel, Tierney said. Fifty were paid or settled in court.

The fines are intended to go toward covering the cost associated with the investigations, which are conducted by local health departments or state officials. That's important because Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed eliminating funding to the state's anti-smoking cigarettes programs, which includes the funding for smoking cigarettes violation investigations, which totaled $1.16 million statewide last year, House said.

Todays Note: the Blood advantage.
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