Thursday, June 5th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Area health officials quit enforcement of smoking ban
  Mercer County health officials on Wednesday voted unanimously to stop enforcing the Smoke-free Workplace Act and hand over the job to the state.
Auglaize County health officials reportedly plan to do the same thing at their monthly board meeting in July.
Following a 30-day grace period, the Ohio Department of Health now will put their two state inspectors in charge of investigating and prosecuting all smoking violation complaints in the local counties.
A lack of funds to do the task is the key reason the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department - and 16 out 130 health departments across Ohio - are giving up the duty placed on them 13 months ago when the law became effective. With no additional revenue or manpower from the state to handle the extra work, Mercer County-Celina City Health Department Administrator Dale Palmer said the agency finds itself at a crossroad.
"This (enforcement duty) is another unfunded state mandate that we don't have staff to support," he said on Wednesday.
The local department looked into several options before making their final decision. At a meeting last month of the "Fab 4" - which includes health officials from Mercer, Auglaize, Van Wert and Allen counties - Palmer suggested they jointly share the expense of an off-duty or retired law enforcement officer to investigate complaints for each region.
"They didn't agree," he said.
During the Fab 4 meeting, Palmer discovered that Auglaize County officials already were preparing to quit. Health Commissioner Charlotte Parsons, who wasn't available to comment for this story, told The Daily Standard in April the department likely would bow out of the enforcement process in the near future.
Van Wert health officials told Palmer they've had minimal complaints to investigate, and Allen County officials plan to continue the job, Palmer added.
The majority of the complaints lodged across the state and in the Grand Lake area have been filed against veterans clubs such as American Legions and Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as Fraternal Order of Eagles lodges.
Environmental Director Michelle Kimmel has spearheaded the local enforcement process and struggled to keep up with a continuing high number of complaints - more than 400 during the last year - each of which must be investigated according to the law.
Kimmel told board members on Wednesday the health department currently has 37 "open" complaints waiting to be investigated. Auglaize County has 51.
To date, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) has received nearly 32,000 complaints alleging violations.
Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for ODH, said the state plans to help county and city health departments as soon as they receive funds from the state's tobacco settlement. Currently, the funds are tied up in litigation.
"We're still waiting to see what's coming and what will be available," he said.
Weiss said state officials are sympathetic with the plight of health officials who are wrestling with the decision to quit the investigative process of the law.
"We understand. We knew that enforcement could be a challenge," Weiss added.
Mercer County Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser said he feels the local agency has searched for every possible answer to the problem. He believes it's the state's responsibility to make the process workable, and so far they've not done their job.
"Changes need to be made," at the state level, he said. "Right now, this is the step we have to take."
Ohio voters passed the controversial no smoking ban in November 2006, which mainly bans indoor smoking in public places and places of employment. Rules weren't written and put into place until the spring of 2007.
All county and city health departments across Ohio have the option to quit the enforcement process by filing a letter of intent with the state.

Court ruling:
COLUMBUS (AP) - The Ohio Supreme Court has rejected an appeal to exempt veterans halls and other private clubs from the state's smoking ban.
The high court said Wednesday that it declined to hear the appeal by the Ohio Department of Health, which argued that the smoking ban approved by voters in 2006 included an exemption for VFW halls, American Legion posts and other fraternal clubs.
The decision lets stand a lower court ruling that said the Health Department didn't have authority to write rules exempting private clubs.
The law prohibits smoking in most public places, including restaurants, bars and offices.
A spokesman for the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, a trade group representing bar owners, says he is pleased with the ruling. The group says an exemption for private clubs would have been unfair.
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