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No-smoking Crackdown No Risk To Bars In Athens

Since Ohio voters passed a no-smoking cigarettes ban for bars and restaurants in 2007, the number of complaints and incidents in Athens County has seen a steady decline.

Nevertheless, the state of Ohio is taking a new approach toward punishing establishments that allow smoking cigarettes by threatening to deny renewal of liquor licenses based on unpaid smoking cigarettes-ban fines.

Earlier this month, a liquor-license renewal was denied for a Cincinnati-area bar called Peg's Pub, which owed approximately $55,900 in fines for 18 violations plus interest.

In Athens, no bar has come close to that number of fines. Figures provided by Athens City-County Health Department Director Chuck Hammer show that the number of smoking cigarettes-ban incidents have declined since the ban went into effect.

In 2007, after voters approved the smoking cigarettes ban in May, 39 complaints were issued between that time and December, Hammer said. Nine warning letters were sent out, and no fines were issued.

In the first full year of the ban, 2008, the department received 41 complaints, sent out 12 warning letters and issued six fines. Those numbers dropped to 29 complaints in 2009, eight warning letters and four fines. And then in 2010, it dropped again to 25 complaints and four warning letters, but six fines.

So far, in 2011, the department has fielded 20 complaints, sent five warning letters and has not issued any fines.

Ohio Liquor Control spokesperson Matt Mullins has said that his agency is working closely with the Ohio Health Department and the Ohio Attorney General's office to deny liquor-permit renewals to any businesses with repeated violations and unpaid fines.

Hammer said that some unpaid fines do remain in Athens County, but wouldn't say which businesses are involved.

"I do have a couple places that have been found in violation, and they've been given a warning letter. And then they've been found in violation again and given a fine. And they haven't paid the fine," he said. "We don't levy fines through here. That's all done through the Ohio Department of Health. And if the fines aren't paid, I think it's turned over to the Ohio attorney general for collection."

Hammer said that the most serious repercussions from the law arise from the fines.

"I guess you can smoke cigarettes all you want in these places if you can afford it," he said. "I've had people tell me that they don't think that it's right for me to be coming in there. And I tell them, 'I don't really care if you smoke cigarettes or not. You can smoke cigarettes as much as you can afford.' Because it does carry a fine."

He said he believes that if fines are paid, then the state can't take punitive action such as denying a liquor-license renewal.

"We've had a lot of really good cooperation," he said. "I think people understand around here the value of the law and the workings of it."

During the battle over Ohio's two-year budget, which went into effect July 1, at one point the funds for enforcing the smoking cigarettes ban were stripped away, but Hammer said that those funds eventually got restored.

He said that the smoke-free workplace law will continue to be enforced locally. The Athens City-County Departments gets about $120 per investigation from the state, he said.

"What that consists of is, whenever a complaint is called in to the state toll-free number, they accept that and forward it down to us," he said. "And we look at that complaint and do an investigation within a certain timeframe to be compensated for that."

After a first complaint, if a violation is found, he said, the business receives a letter of warning. Subsequent violations within two years of that letter of warning can escalate to successively higher fines.

"We've had a few of those, but generally speaking, after a warning or a couple of findings the businesses are compliant with the regulations," he said.

Hammer said it's not uncommon to get complaints and then no violations are found.

Often these complaints are based on a misunderstanding of the law, he said, such as patrons complaining about smokers standing outside of a business or in an open-air patio.

"That may not be a violation of the law depending on the circumstance," he said. "We look at it and we carefully follow the requirements of the law. Sometimes we find the complaint doesn't refer to an actual violation. People may be smoking cigarettes but it might not be in a restricted area."

Fines start at $100 and go up from there, getting larger with subsequent violations, he said.

Hammer said that when he does an investigation, he personally has to find a violation of the law.

"That could be lack of posting of a sign, or smoking cigarettes in a prohibited area, but the investigator has to find the violation," he said. "So a lot of times people might say they were smoking cigarettes someplace but we don't find an ashtray or any evidence that there was a smoking cigarettes violation. So we just dismiss it then."