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Published: Wednesday, 8/29/2007

5 in area fined for violating Ohio smoking ban

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS - Twenty-nine fines have been levied against Ohio taverns, veterans halls, and even a cab company suspected of violating the state's new public smoking ban. It is the first wave of $100 fines to be issued since voters approved the ban in November.

Five of the organizations fined are in northwest Ohio.

Jimmy Valentine, manager at Jay's Lakeside Inn in Middletown, said his tavern received a warning letter, but he was unaware of the $100 fine.

"I wouldn't pay any of the fines," Mr. Valentine said. "I'll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to. Every bar in Middletown is allowing [people] to smoke."

The statewide ban covers most public places, including restaurants, bars, and workplaces. It exempts retail tobacco stores, family-owned businesses, designated hotel rooms, and enclosed areas of nursing homes. Enforcement began in May, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Mr. Valentine said the dining room at his inn became nonsmoking three years ago. But he said the facility-wide ban has cost the inn more than $1,000 a week in lost business.

Most of the businesses fined were restaurants or bars. Eight were veterans halls, which had unsuccessfully fought for an exemption as private clubs.

Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for the state health department, said the agency relies on complaints before launching investigations. He said the fined groups and businesses have 30 days to request an administrative hearing.

State health officials had predicted in May that assessing the initial fines could take months because accused businesses get a warning letter after a first violation - which follows a formal complaint and investigation.

The $100 fines are for second violations. A third offense can result in a $500 fine; fourth offense, $1,000; fifth or more, $2,500.

Health department officials said enforcement of the ban is handled primarily by local health departments. Complaints are filed at the state level and referred to local health boards, which do the investigating, send warning letters, levy fines, and hold administrative hearings.

In a few cases, the local health boards have elected to turn over enforcement to the state agency.

In the past three months, the state has received more than 11,000 smoking complaints; 17,000 were made before May 3, when enforcement began.

Jon Johnson of the Cincinnati suburb of Hyde Park thinks that the $100 fines being levied are less than stiff.

"I can just see the Eagles lodge in Middletown taking a happy donation or opening a NASCAR pool to pay that piddly $100 off," he said.









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