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Thursday, May 7th, 2009

State officials snuff out local smoking ban violators

By Shelley Grieshop
Thousands of dollars worth of fines have been issued in the last year to area clubs and bars since the state took over enforcement of the Smokefree Workplace Act.
Topping the list in the Grand Lake area with the highest number of violations and fines is the Veterans of Foreign Wars post along Logan Street in Celina. The club has paid $6,600 in fines since the no-smoking law went into effect in the spring of 2007.
In March, the VFW was slapped with its fourth violation. State officials doubled the normal $2,500 fine to $5,000 because they labeled the occurrence an "intentional" offense. Investigators can use discretion when issuing fines.
VFW Finance Officer Mort Ward admitted the fine was justified.
"They observed smoking on the left and smoking on the right. There were ashtrays out ... the whole works," he said.
Ward said the post decided to ban smoking for good after the state sent a letter informing them of the huge fine. A tent that was erected on the east side of the hall several months ago is now the only smoking area allowed, he said.
No complaints have been lodged against the VFW since, he added.
"The smoke patrol no longer visits our facility since we have no complaints," Ward said.
In November 2006, Ohio voters approved the ban on smoking in businesses and public places. From the beginning there was controversy over who must comply and numerous appeals were filed. Initially, veterans clubs were thought to be exempt but Ohio legislatures later clarified the law to include them, too.
The task of enforcement of the smoking ban immediately fell on local health departments. But with no extra funds allotted, many health boards voted to opt out. Last summer, Mercer and Auglaize County health departments passed the enforcement job back to the state. In October, Van Wert followed suit.
To date, 36 of 130 county and city health departments across Ohio have quit enforcing the law. Two Ohio Department of Health (ODH) officials now investigate complaints and issue fines for those three dozen agencies, according to Jay Carey, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.
"Of course, every time the phone rings we're not sending someone out," he told The Daily Standard.
The two officials investigate complaints two or three days a week, he explained. Often they accumulate several complaints from the same place before making a road trip, he added.
Veterans clubs and area lodges have accumulated the most complaints and fines across the state, according to data provided by the ODH. In Mercer County, three organizations (including the Celina VFW) and a bar have netted their third fines. They include the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Loyal Order of Moose, both of Celina, and Wendelin Tavern, St. Henry.
The Eagles and the Moose clubs have paid only $600 of their accumulated $2,600 fines. Moose officials have asked for an administrative review of their remaining fines.
The owner of Wendelin Tavern has been issued $3,100 in total fines to date, but has only paid $100. ODH data shows that $2,000 of the fine amount is undergoing an administrative review. The remaining $1,000 was upheld in the state's favor in an administrative review and is now pending in appeals at Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Fifteen clubs, bars and other organizations in Mercer County have received first-time fines; nine of those have gotten second fines.
In Auglaize County, the Eagles in St. Marys and the Ohio Bar in Wapakoneta are the only entities to receive first and second fines - the highest being $1,000. In all, warnings have been issued to 11 clubs and businesses in Auglaize County.
Across the state, 116 businesses and clubs have received their fourth fine since enforcement of the law began. In the last two years, nearly 44,000 complaints have been lodged by the public.

Correction:
When: May 7, 2009
What: Smoking ban story
Where: Front page
The fourth smoking ban violation, resulting in a $5,000 fine, occurred at the VFW in Celina last year, not in March. In September, the facility began enforcing the smoke-free law.
The errors were made due to information/dates provided by the Ohio Department of Health.
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