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Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Four clubs fined for smoking

By Shelley Grieshop
Fines have been issued to four local veterans' clubs and lodges that reportedly continue to violate the new smoking ban approved by Ohio voters nine months ago.
Michelle Kimmel, director of environmental health at the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department, told board members on Wednesday that four fines - $100 each - were recently issued in writing to four separate violating entities: the Loyal Order of Moose, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Fraternal Order of Eagles, all of Celina, and the American Legion in Coldwater.
"We have a 30-day waiting period now. If we don't get a request for hearings (from the clubs), then an invoice will be sent out," by the state, she explained.
So far, none of the alleged violators have appealed.
A fine for a business with a first-time offense is $100, but health boards across the state can double that amount if the violators are found to have blatantly disobeyed the law. A second violation also nets a $100 fine; a third, $500; a fourth, $1,000; and subsequent violations are $2,500.
Individual smokers face a warning letter the first time and $100 fine for all other future violations. Any business or person charged with a violation can challenge it through an appeal process.
The smoking ban is complaint driven. Anyone seeking to file a complaint can call the Ohio Department of Health toll-free at 866-559-OHIO or contact their local health department.
The Ohio Smoke-Free Workplace Act prohibits smoking in all indoor public places with a few exceptions including private residences, family-owned businesses with no nonfamily members present, designated rooms in nursing homes, outdoor patios, tobacco shops with less than 20 percent nontobacco sales and nonprofit, private clubs that have no employees, do not invite the public or anyone under 18 and have free-standing structures where smoke can't migrate to nonsmoking areas.
An investigation in June by The Daily Standard showed that Mercer County health officials had received a higher-than average number of smoking complaints compared to similiar-sized counties across Ohio. That remains true, according to data compiled by the state.
According to Kimmel, the local department has received 145 complaints since May, when the enforcement portion of the ban began. Currently, there are still 53 complaints/cases open, 52 resulted in written warnings and 27 led to the four fines recently issued. Twelve cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence or other means.
Local officials say more than 90 percent of complaints are related to smoking in clubs and lodges.
Auglaize County officials were not available to provide data at press time.
Veterans clubs such as American Legions and VFWs are netting the most complaints and violations across the state, compared with all other businesses and entities subject to the law.
Kimmel and county Sanitarian Chris Miller said their office continues to receive letters and e-mails from citizens complaining that public smoking hasn't ceased.
"We're doing everything the law allows us to do," said Kimmel, who has devoted several evenings visiting establishments to verify complaints filed.
Although there are several steps businesses must take to comply with the law, the "big three," as Miller calls them, are posting no smoking signs, removing ashtrays and prohibiting employees and customers from lighting up.
Miller and Kimmel know that many businesses are allowing smoking because it's a "financial decision." They believe the amount of money they'll lose by turning away their smoking customers is much higher than a piddly $100 fine.
"But eventually the fines will get up there," Miller said.
The pair aren't happy about making business people and club managers mad because they want a good rapport with them for future food licensing and other health department services. But they have to follow the law and as long as the public files complaints they must continue to investigate them, they said.
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