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Published: Sunday, 1/17/2010

Clear air on smoke ban

Ohio's voter-approved ban on smoking in bars, clubs, restaurants, and most other public places is good law. It is improving Ohioans' health, encouraging adults to stop smoking, and making a night out far more pleasant for the large nonsmoking majority who don't want to inhale the waste streams of others' tobacco.

Threats and complaints by a few disgruntled bar owners who don't feel like obeying the ban should not deter state and local agencies from enforcing it vigorously. To the contrary, regulators must become more aggressive in going after repeat offenders, both levying meaningful fines for noncompliance and making sure they get paid.

A report in today's Blade notes that the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has fined public establishments - mostly bars - more than $118,000 for violating the ban since it took effect in 2007. But barely $5,000 has been paid. Such a poor record of collections, for whatever reason, only encourages contempt for the law.

It is appropriate to expect all bar owners and employers to take reasonable steps to make sure their patrons obey the smoking ban, even if that is not a direct condition of licensing. When they don't, owners should not be surprised that they face stiff fines.

The state attorney general is seeking court orders against two bars in Columbus and Cincinnati with records of repeated violations to force them to pay their fines - more than $20,000 apiece. If such enforcement muscle is necessary, courts should supply it.

Some bar owners now are threatening to close their taverns rather than pay their fines. That's their prerogative. But they, not the state, would bear responsibility for the job losses and other consequences of such shutdowns. No amount of trying to change the subject, however vehement, will change that fact.

Violators are running out of excuses not to comply with the smoking ban. Its constitutionality has been affirmed, despite self-important rhetoric by opponents about "rights" and "principles."

Bar owners near the Ohio-Michigan border no longer can complain they are losing business to competitors across the state line because of the smoking ban. Michigan finally has enacted its own overdue ban, and will start to enforce it in May.

To be sure, Ohio's government has set a poor example by seeking to shift money earmarked for smoking cessation and treatment to other programs. However acute the state's fiscal problems, it should not break faith with the spirit of the national tobacco settlement, which aimed to use its proceeds to address directly the effects of smoking, not to provide states with a budgetary slush fund.

Regardless, though, it's axiomatic that we don't get to decide which laws we will obey and which we'll ignore. Ohio's smoking ban is the law. It's past time for all citizens to get used to it and comply with it, or at least not to whine about the consequences if they don't.

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