Thursday, March 6th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Local officials likely to quit enforcing smoking ban
Health board to state: Take this job and ...
  Enforcing Ohio's indoor smoking ban has been a nightmare for the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department and officials say they've had enough.
Health board members on Wednesday approved action to find out how to officially abandon the job as local smoke police and turn enforcement over to the state.
"We're extremely frustrated," county Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser said.
To date, 12 Ohio county/city health departments out of 131 have turned the job of smoking ban enforcement back to the state. According to Ohio Department of Health (ODH) spokesman Kristopher Weiss, only one staff member currently is assigned to investigate complaints filed in those 12 health districts.
Since the smoking ban was passed by voters in December 2006, local health officials have dealt with an exceptionally high number of smoking complaints, which all must be investigated according to the law despite the lack of extra staff or funds. In addition, local officials say they've received conflicting rules from the state.
Last month, a discussion about the legality of business owners storing ashtrays in public view spurred a controversy about the wording of the law. Masser, Kimmel and Sanitarian Chris Miller said their training on the law - which occurred under the direction of the state - instructed them that ashtrays needed to be completely out of sight and/or stored in a different area where customers did not have access.
However, officials with the ODH recently offered a contradicting opinion, Kimmel said. In a statement received Monday from ODH, which the board described as "clear as mud," ODH adviser Lance Himes wrote: "I think the stacking behind and underneath the bar (of ashtrays) is probably OK."
Himes went on to say that ashtrays can be stored only in that manner for use on designated patios or other outside areas and not for patrons to extinguish cigarettes inside the bar.
"That certainly deviates from what we've been taught," Masser said.
Kimmel added, "To me, it's still kind of ambiguous."
Despite the controversy, board members approved action to issue a warning to Illusions Nite Club in Celina, the business where Kimmel reportedly found ashtrays stored behind the bar during a complaint investigation. The owners had stated the ashtrays were used for customers to extinguish cigarettes after entering the business.
After further discussion, board members agreed they will continue enforcement of the law until they complete the process to turn it over to the state.
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