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A good Ohio law prohibits smoking in public places. Yet the ban continues to be violated openly in dozens of bars and restaurants throughout the Toledo region, according to a recent Blade report.
State and local officials are failing to enforce the law effectively, and to collect fines from businesses that routinely violate it. Such lack of enforcement encourages disrespect for the law.
Nearly eight years after Ohio voters approved the statewide smoking ban, some area bar and restaurant owners still permit open smoking in their establishments. It is time to play hardball with these individuals who flout the law.
The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has repeatedly cited 37 local establishments for allowing patrons to smoke. The director of the county’s environmental health services says these violators represent a “smidgen” of the 3,000 bars and restaurants in the county.
Minimizing this scofflaw behavior is a big part of the problem. Three dozen offenders are knowingly breaking the rules with no fear of penalty. They refuse to pay their fines, or often put ownership of their bars in the names of friends or family members in an effort to escape fines.
Lucas County is owed more than $320,000 in fines by smoking-law violators over the past seven years. Last year, the department recovered just $3,000 in fine money. The Ohio Department of Health is owed more $2 million from businesses across the state.
State studies have repeatedly shown that bar and restaurant revenue in Ohio has continued to rise despite the smoking ban, even during the Great Recession. The scofflaws who portray themselves as champions of civil disobedience simply, defiantly — and successfully — refuse to do the right thing.
So they need to be hit where it hurts: in their wallets. Local and state regulators cite the need to respect “due process” for the scofflaws, and say they are negotiating settlements with some violators.
But these things still could be achieved along with suspensions of liquor and food licenses for chronic, flagrant offenders. A justified threat to revenue might provide an adequate incentive to settle up.
Officials from the state health department and attorney general’s office have for years declared that they are pushing to deny liquor licenses to bars and restaurants whose owners refuse to pay the fines imposed on them for breaking the anti-smoking law. Yet nothing has happened. Less lip service, and more prompt action, are long overdue.
It’s in the interest of the public health of all citizens for local and state regulators to enforce the law with all the tools available to them.