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Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Local health officials still cling to smoking ban duty

By Shelley Grieshop

The map above shows the counties (in gray) and cities (marked with gray circles). . .

The Mercer County-Celina City Health Department could become the 14th health department out of 131 across the state of Ohio to quit enforcement of the no smoking ban if fiscal options aren't found.
Health board members on Wednesday again discussed the idea of turning enforcement over to the state, with county Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser saying, "I don't think we have a choice."
County Environmental Director Michelle Kimmel informed the board about the necessary steps to bow out of the duty, which includes passing a resolution and drafting a letter of intent. The process takes about 30 days.
Board members eventually decided to table the idea, and instead voted to further review the possibility of hiring outside help to investigate smoking complaints filed against local businesses and private clubs.
Board members said they've received numerous comments from the public - some advising the board to abandon the job and others who believe it's the local officials' duty to forge on.
Newly appointed health department Administrator Dale F. Palmer said he fears that giving up now may produce a bad public perception for the agency and could create an "open season" for violators.
In the counties and cities where health departments already have turned the task back to the state, an Ohio Department of Health (ODH) full-time worker and a temporary staff member travel to these counties to enforce the law. Miraculously, they appear to be keeping up, says Kristopher Weiss, an ODH spokesman.
Auglaize County Health Commissioner Charlotte Parsons said her department is feeling the pinch, too, and suspects the board will discuss the option of quitting the process in the next couple months.
With a weak economy and no additional funds in sight, more health departments will likely bow out in the future, health officials across Ohio told The Daily Standard in recent interviews. If that occurs, legislators could be forced to make changes in the controversial law.
"I've thought that all along, that if the state was made to do it they'd be forced to come up with a better way," Kimmel said.
Officials at ODH currently are looking into ways to help fund the local agencies, Weiss said.
"We're looking at options, nothing solid and I can't discuss it yet," he said.
Ohio health departments initially were offered subsidies based on population to jump-start the enforcement process. Most received approximately $1,000, but soon found out the costs were much higher, they said.
More than 28,400 smoking complaints have been filed in Ohio since enforcement began May 3, 2007, following passage of the law by voters in November 2006. Lack of funding and staff members were the top reasons most counties and cities opted out, officials said.
As of last Friday, 12 county/city health departments have quit the enforcement process and a 13th - Williams County in northeast Ohio - is pending. Five of those counties - ranging in population from 40,800 to 155,000 - chose from the beginning not to investigate smoking complaints.
Highland County Health Commissioner Jim Vanzant said even though his department never enforced the law from the start, they've always supported it. He's just not sure taxpayers got exactly what they voted for.
"If it had been explained better ... I don't think it would have ever passed," he said.
Statistics show the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department has received a high volume of complaints (more than 400 filed since May) compared to other regions with similar populations.
During investigations the last year, Kimmel often found bar and club owners and patrons blatantly disobeying the law. But that scenario isn't typical in other areas. Twelve of the 13 Ohio counties/cities contacted by the newspaper said most of their businesses, including bars and clubs, were complying.
"It's probably close to 90 percent compliance here," said DuWayne Porter, health commissioner for Portage County in northeast Ohio.
As of last week, Portage County, with a population nearly four times higher than Mercer County, had received a total of 350 complaints.
Porter supports the no smoking law and believes it is the most important piece of health legislation passed during his 34 years in the health field. He also said it bothers him that he had to turn enforcement over to the state, but said his staff just couldn't handle the job.
"I just don't know how I could justify sending people out for this," he said, adding his department has much higher priorities.
In the past year, health departments have been mandated several other duties to perform including stricter school inspections and numerous changes in home sewage system regulations.
Patty Reda, health commissioner for the city of Steubenville, with a population of 19,000, said the health board there officially quit enforcement in January. She personally believes the law is appropriate for the workplace but should provide some exemptions - like other states do - for bars and clubs. She also wasn't comfortable with the idea that complaints can be lodged anonymously, but her staff did the job anyway until it was no longer financially feasible.
"The law is the law," she said. "But this is tough to enforce and very, very time consuming. There's a lot more here that needs to be addressed."
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