Cover Story: Move Along

Enforcement of Ohio's smoking ban could begin by the end of April ... or not


Snitching is still officially encouraged by new Ohio smoking laws scheduled to take effect at the end of the month, but anonymous snitching by itself won't be grounds for a fine.

That's just one of the new developments in the statewide ban on indoor smoking, which voters approved last November but hasn't yet been enforced.

The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) filed proposed regulations March 21 with the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which is expected to consider them April 16. If approved, enforcement could begin as early as April 30, according to Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for the health department.

The draft regulations include concessions to veterans' groups, some of which want to allow smoking in their lodges. If a club's only employees are members of the organization, smoking can be allowed.

"Private club representatives have consistently asked ODH to fashion rules that reflect the exemption they believed they had under the law passed in November," says ODH Acting Director Anne R. Harnish. "Changes made after a thorough review by our lawyers allow us to do just that."

As approved by voters, the law also exempts tobacco shops, hotels and nursing homes, allowing them to establish smoking areas.

Since Dec. 7, 2006, it has technically been illegal in Ohio to smoke in any restaurant, bar, bowling alley or other place of public accommodation.

But many businesses have ignored the law, knowing the state had postponed enforcement.

The law bans the presence of ashtrays in indoor public places and requires the placement of "No smoking" signs. A first offense — by a smoker or a business — will bring a warning letter. Thereafter, smokers face fines of $100 for violating the ban. Businesses that allow smoking can be punished with fines from $100 to $2,500 for repeat offenses.

The law directed ODH or its designees to enforce the smoking ban. ODH has passed that duty on to local health departments.

Businesses must post signs containing a toll-free number (866-559-OHIO) for reporting violations of the smoking ban. But don't hold your breath waiting for the cigarette police to show up and stop someone from smoking. When Columbus gets the complaint, the process has just begun.

"The complaint will be referred to the local health department," Weiss says. "This is a civil law, and enforcement is complaint-driven."

The revised rules state than an anonymous complaint alone can't form the basis for a violation. They instead will lead to investigations.

If the dormancy period since the law was passed is any indication, local health departments are going to be very busy. In the months since it opened the snitch hotline, ODH has received 40,000 calls, including 15,000 complaints, Weiss says.

Despite popular belief, there is no sidewalk restriction. The law approved by voters instead bans smoking in areas where smoke will get indoors.

"We debated the distance requirement and decided not to have one," Weiss says. "The law says smoke shall not migrate into the restricted areas. If a business asks you to move and you don't, they could file a complaint."

That is, file a complaint with Columbus, which will send it back to the health department serving the location where the offense occurred, which will investigate the incident — long after you've stomped out your butt and moved along. ©

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