Monday, December 6th, 2010
By Shelley Grieshop
Public smoking still hot issue locally
  The smoke hasn't cleared inside many local bars and clubs despite the passage of Ohio's Smoke-Free Workplace Act in 2006.
Numerous complaints about smokers blatantly lighting up in Grand Lake area establishments continue to spur investigations by Ohio Department of Health (ODH) officials. To date, 721 complaints have been fielded by ODH about suspected violators in Mercer County; 359 in Auglaize County.
Most of the complaints are eventually dismissed for lack of evidence, according to state data. However, a total of 37 fines - ranging from $100 to $2,500 each - have been issued in both counties since enforcement began in 2007. Nineteen cases remain open and pending - 16 of those in Mercer County.
ODH officials say catching violators is tough. Businesses often scramble to warn each other when investigators are in town, according to a bartender at Rustic Haven in St. Marys.
"When we know they're here, we start calling other places up the road," said Lisa, who refused to provide her last name.
Bar and club owners also are tipped off by letters sent their way by ODH informing them of a complaint filed against them.
"We know within a week they'll be coming, so there's absolutely no smoking until they're here and gone again," the Rustic Haven bartender said.
Investigators have a maximum of 30 days from the time a complaint is made until they visit the establishment. When inside, their job is to wonder about and look for tell-tale signs, according to ODH spokeswoman Jen House. Ashtrays and items used for ashtrays or the obvious - someone smoking - will prompt a warning for a first-time offender or a citation for others, she explained.
"We're doing what we can do to make them comply," House said.
One of the biggest obstacles the state faces is a lack of staffing. ODH has just two investigators to cover approximately 50 of 130 counties and cities across Ohio that have opted not to investigate allegations or perform enforcement.
Health department officials in Mercer and Auglaize counties initially tried to handle the job but found it too costly and time consuming. They also found it dangerous, in some instances, as they were forced to check compliance on evenings and weekends.
Of the 37 fines issued as of last week, the top offenders were the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs in Celina with four fines each. A fifth violation is pending against the Eagles, documents show. The Moose Lodge in Celina was fined three times and currently has a fourth violation pending.
Rustic Haven, like several other lakeside bars, built a heated outside patio for smokers, but it's had minimal use as the weather turns colder, the bartender said.
"So when it's late at night and the dinner crowd is gone, the barmaids say it's OK (to smoke). What are you going to do?" she said.
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