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Statewide smoking ban violators get a say

It's been a year since the statewide smoking ban took effect. Wednesday the Columbus Health Department began holding hearings for businesses that have been charged with violating the smoke-free workplace law.

"Do each of you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as you shall answer unto God? We do."

If you had been just listening to the administrative review hearing at the Columbus Health Department you may have thought you were tuned into a trial.

"You understand you have the right to an attorney, correct? Yes, sir."

There was an attorney, cross examinations, rebuttals but this was not a trial. Worthington Moose Lodge 1427's representative, Gary Ryan, was testifying before an impartial hearing officer. Ryan chose not to have legal council. He hopes the hearing officer will recommend to the Columbus Board of Health that the Moose Lodge get back fines it incurred for smoking ban violations.

Columbus Health Department's Gene Smith investigates complaints that businesses are violating the smoking ban. He testified he saw people inside the Moose Lodge smoking.

"I could see people lighting cigarettes at the bar and people going around collecting evidence and throwing it in trash cans," Smith said.

"Does the Moose admit that they have been smoking in the building? Yes," Ryan said. Ryan, who's standing in for his ill father who runs the Moose Lodge, told the hearing officer he thinks his father let members smoke because his father thought the Moose Lodge was exempt because it's a private club. But that's not the case.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that veterans halls and other private clubs, like the Moose Lodge, are not exempt from the smoking ban.

Ryan said it's been tough trying to enforce the smoke-free workplace law. He called it an "uphill battle."

"People rip signs off the doors. Deface them," Ryan said.

Ryan's not the only one having a tough time making sure no one smokes in his establishment. Roy Walls owns Jack's Corner Pub on Summit Street. He's been fined twice - a total of $600 - for violating the smoking ban.

"You can't stop somebody if they come in and light up. You ask them to leave or put it out. But other than that people still try to light up when they're drunk and everything else," he said.

Walls, who had just finished getting his bar ready for the day, was about to head down to the Columbus Health Department for his own hearing to see if his fines can be overturned.

"I hope they see, I, people are trying to enforce it," Walls said.

Walls said he and his bartenders do their best to let patrons know they can not smoke in the bar. He's hung several "no smoking" signs throughout the bar. And the one at bar's entrance...

"They keep putting their cigarettes out on it. They keep ripping it down. Now I see they've been burning the sign now," Walls said.

The hearing officer will listen to Ryan's and Wall's case and recommend to the board of health if the fines should be reversed. The board of health will make the final call.

Businesses get a warning letter for the first offense. After that, fines vary from $100 for the second offense up to $2,500 for the fifth. And Health department's John Richter said fines can be doubled if investigators feel the law is being broken intentionally.

Richter said at least 28 investigations have led to fines. Of those, only eight businesses have requested a hearing.

Richter does not expect these hearings to encourage additional appeals. He said because the board of health has the final say, further appeals could get costly.

"If they want to appeal it further, now they will have to go to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. And the proprietors will need to get an attorney to represent them. So that does create another level of expense for these proprietors," Richter said.

Even though the smoking ban is a state law, it's up to local communities to investigate and enforce the rule.