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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2010

Enforce the smoking ban

OHIO bars, restaurants, nightclubs, work sites, and other public places - and those who populate them - are getting used to the state's voter-approved ban on smoking in these venues. The three-year-old ban is a good law that is improving Ohioans' health and reducing public costs related to smoking.

State and local agencies must continue to enforce the law vigorously against recalcitrant business owners who don't uphold the ban because, well, they just don't feel like it. Regulators should not be deterred by a bad lower-court decision that needlessly complicates the issue and demands to be reversed.

Last week, a judge in Franklin County threw out 10 citations and about $30,000 in fines against a Columbus bar that health inspectors said repeatedly failed to prevent its patrons from smoking illegally. The judge said he found it "offensive to basic notions of justice and fair play" that the bar was cited for violating the law, but not individual smokers.

If the ruling is allowed to stand, it could fatally weaken enforcement of the ban, and thus the will of voters. Ohio's liquor lobby already is citing the ruling as justification to exempt bars from the ban.

The judge said that individual decisions to smoke illegally are beyond the control of a business. But a spokesman for the American Cancer Society of Ohio noted that in the case at issue, eight of the 10 violations involved the use of ashtrays, which patrons presumably did not bring with them.

State and local officials observe that bar owners are held legally liable if they serve obviously intoxicated or underage customers. They must comply with mandates on such matters as building construction and food service.

Why, these officials sensibly ask, should compliance with the smoking ban be any different? They add that many other court rulings have held owners responsible for enforcing the state ban at their business sites.

The state attorney general's office is properly appealing last week's lower-court ruling, and state health officials properly plan to continue to enforce the ban in the meantime. In the longer term, if making enforcement of the ban a condition of continued liquor licensing is necessary to get willful repeat offenders to comply with the law, then the state ought to pursue that course.

The court ruling comes at a time when business compliance with the smoking ban has greatly improved. The Dayton Daily News reported this week that the number of complaints filed against businesses for violating the ban fell to 9,228 last year from 21,604 in 2007, the year it took effect.

The figures suggest that businesses and citizens alike are coming to accept and respect the law - all the more reason to crack down on the businesses that persist in defying it. The excuse that enforcing the ban offends some customers and thus deprives a business of revenue is no excuse.

But if the bottom line is all that counts to such businesses, then levying - and collecting - penalties for violations must become a higher priority for state and local agencies and for courts. A handful of scofflaws should not be allowed to continue to violate the smoking ban with impunity. The law is too important to tolerate that kind of contempt.

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