CINCINNATI - It used to be, you could smoke a cigarette in virtually any bar or restaurant in Ohio. It used to be you were asked “Smoking? Or non-smoking?” when being seated at a restaurant.
No longer. When Ohioans passed a no smoking referendum in November of 2005, they essentially told businesses the rights of the worker supersede the right of anyone to smoke.
Except, the smoking hasn’t stopped. At least, it hasn’t stopped everywhere. The 9 News I-Team sent hidden cameras into four local bars to see if smoking was occurring. During afternoon hours on several different days, the I-Team went into the Village Tavern in West Chester, The Pub Café in Oakley, The Longbranch Saloon in Middletown and Peg’s Pub in Evendale. In all four bars, not only were patrons smoking, in at least two separate bars, so were the bartenders.
At Peg’s Pub, so-called 'smoke eater fans' circle above patrons' heads and huge banners proclaiming Peg’s a non-smoking establishment line the bar, as smokers light up. Dave Pitzer, owner of Peg’s Pub, says there are occasions where people are smoking in the bar despite that fact that, per the Ohio law, he won’t supply ashtrays.
Pitzer says he can tell people to go outside to smoke, but he won’t call police or kick them out if they are otherwise being orderly, explaining the law isn’t a criminal one. It’s a civil law.
The state gets plenty of complaints about Peg’s. Those complaints open investigations. And, so far, those investigations have lead to Pitzer racking up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. When asked how much he owes the state, Pitzer says, “I'd say it's in the neighborhood, with fines, penalties and interest, ballpark $80,000." He says he pays what he can, $100 a month and knows he’ll never pay off the fines.
Up the road in Middletown, the Longbranch Saloon is a local watering hole. It’s had 44 smoking violations since the law began and just one fine levied. Yet, Chris Gorak, co-owner of The Longbranch, knows smoking happens in his bar on occasion. He says it’s to compete. He claims all the bars around him allow smoking and that 98 percent of his patrons are smokers. He says it doesn’t take a genius to realize smoking has to happen in his bar for him to keep his doors open. Additionally, he doesn’t enjoy playing the enforcer.
"Yeah, it's their law,” says Gorak. “We didn't make the law, the state made it. They're putting it on our shoulders to monitor these people. We're not police. We're not security guards. We're not watchdogs."
As for the fine, he’s not sure if he’ll pay it or fight it.
Most violators in Ohio seem to avoiding paying their fines, so why not Gorak.
In fact, since the smoking ban went into effect in January of 2006, the state at the time of this report, had invoiced $2,982,498.18 in fines. It had collected just $686,023.78 of that nearly $3 million owed by violators.
Despite that fact, Mandy Burkett, the Chief of the Indoor Environment Section at the Ohio Department of Health in Columbus, feels the law is doing well.
"The majority of businesses are complying with the law,” says Burkett. “I think with any law you are going to have stragglers, and we are having to find some ways to deal with that."
Since fining bars, such as Peg’s, doesn’t seem to work. Burkett says the state is now exploring ways to suspend or revoke bars liquor licenses. She says she hopes it would never come to that. But that she must enforce the law, and believes eventually, in time, all bars in Ohio will adhere.
"As a business owner, you have certain responsibilities and this one may be, for some people, a little bit harder to swallow because they just don't agree with it. But it is the law and it is their responsibility."
Wondering if the bar you frequent has seen this kind of activity? Sort through all the smoking complaints and fines at bars and other public places in Ohio at http://www.wcpo.com/generic/news/local_news/Smoking-Ban-Complaints .
Do you think the smoking ban is working? Let us know in the comments section below.
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