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Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Mercer County to check on illegal smoking at night

Complaints about tobacco use above average for state; Auglaize County complaints lower

By Shelley Grieshop
Local health officials soon will be checking out the nightlife as they investigate an above-average number of complaints about violators of the new smoking ban.
Chris Miller, sanitarian for the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department, said on-site checks to investigate possible violators have taken health officials to businesses and private clubs during daytime hours on seven occasions. But he has learned some establishments - particularly private clubs like VFWs, American Legions and Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodges - are banning smoking only during daytime business hours.
Miller believes violators are assuming health officials will come by to investigate only during the day. Until now, that's been the case, he said.
"But I foresee evening visits," he said.
The Mercer County office has received 55 complaints about people smoking in public places since May 4, a day after the enforcement portion of the smoking ban took effect. Eight cases have been dismissed or closed for lack of sufficient information; four establishments were sent notices of violations; and the rest remain open.
Auglaize County, which has approximately 6,000 more residents than Mercer County, has logged just 17 complaints.
In a complaint comparison by The Daily Standard of six similar-sized counties in Ohio, Mercer County stands head and shoulders above the rest. Only Ottawa County in northern Ohio with a population of about 41,300 comes close with 47 complaints; Fulton County with 42,900 residents had just 10.
Are Mercer County residents less tolerant or more health conscious?
"I really don't know," Miller said.
Miller said many of the complaints were filed numerous times on the same establishments - mostly veterans' clubs and lodges. The Moose Lodge in Celina netted the highest number with 13.
A close look at data obtained from the state for other Ohio counties reveals the same pattern - veterans' clubs and other private lodges top the list.
Miller said there was a lot of confusion after state officials in mid-March announced that private clubs likely would not have to adhere to the new law passed by Ohioans in November
That news prompted the filing of a lawsuit against the state on behalf of bar and tavern owners who claimed favoritism. The American Cancer Society also threw their hat in the ring and filed a lawsuit to defend the private club employees who would be exposed to second-hand smoke.
Although a federal judge ruled last month that private clubs must comply to the new law, the issue has yet to be solved due to the possibility of court appeals.
Miller believes the people who are turning in would-be violators are repeatedly filing complaints on the same place because they're not seeing action taken. The enforcement process is slow in order to provide adequate time for investigation and to give alleged violators a chance to reply, he said.
"I want to stress we are investigating within the time frames established," Miller said.
Miller and others at the health department have said they do not want to become the "smoke police." All of their investigations and checks are complaint-driven only, just as the state regulations dictate, he said. The department has other priorities and certainly no extra funds to make "smoke checks" unless a complaint is filed, he added.
Miller said the investigation process is a tough one. He and other health officials know their presence isn't exactly welcome, especially inside bars and clubs that are blatantly violating the law. One of the first questions he's asked at most sites is "Who turned me in?"
"They always want to know who filed the complaint against them," he said, adding that complaints are allowed to be made anonymous and most are filed that way.
Local health departments received $1,709 this week from the state as a subsidy check to cover expenses incurred for enforcement work through June. Health officials could at that time refer the investigative duty back to the state, but Miller said he likely will keep the job.
Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser told board members at Wednesday's meeting the goal of the health department is to bring about long-term compliance, not just playing a game to catch people in the act of violating the law.
"We're not going to solve this issue today," Masser said. "But we hope we'll see all businesses fall into compliance sometime in the near future."
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