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Unpaid smoking fines put bar licenses in jeopardy

Area liquor permits at risk over fines from smoking violations. Ohio’s anti-smoking law gains traction.



The Froggy Blues Café in Monroe owes $34,000. Staff photo by Gary Stelzer

GARY STELZER/MBR The Froggy Blues Café in Monroe owes $34,000. Staff photo by Gary Stelzer

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By Beena Raghavendran, Staff Writer 12:56 AM Saturday, May 26, 2012

A number of area drinking establishments are at risk of losing their liquor permits if they don’t pay smoking fines levied against them, health officials said.

Ohio’s Smoke-Free Workplace Act gained more teeth this week when it was ruled constitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. The court rejected a Columbus tavern owner’s case that said requiring establishments to pay the smoking fine was an illegal taking of property. The law, passed in 2006, makes smoking in most public places illegal. Easy’s in the Village has the most unpaid fines from smoking violations in Butler and Warren counties, according to hundreds of Ohio Health Department records examined by the Middletown Journal.

Owners of Easy’s in the Village did not returns calls for comment. The Hamilton bar owes $245,000 in unpaid smoking fines from the past five years. It’s one of several bars and pubs that still owe thousands of dollars in fines.

Unpaid smoking fines in area businesses add up to $34,000 at Froggy Blues Café in Monroe, $16,600 at Towne Pub in Hamilton and $11,500 at Scotty’s Pub in Fairfield, according to Ohio Department of Health invoices.

A bar’s first violation of the smoking ban is a warning from the Ohio Department of Health and a $100 fine; the second is a $500 fine; the third is a $1,000 fine; and the fourth and each subsequent offense is a $2,500 fine, according to ODH spokeswoman Shannon Libby.

State records show $3 million in fines have been issued in the past five years, but almost $2.3 million remains unpaid.

Ohio health officials say they hope collections improve now that the Supreme Court has declared the law constitutional and removed one of the justifications some businesses have used to withhold payment of fines.

However, budget cuts, a bad economy and the difficulty of collecting fines for offenses that are, legally speaking, the equivalent of parking tickets all play a part in the low collection rate.

“We have had some difficulty collecting,” said Amanda Burkett, chief of the Ohio Department of Health’s indoor environment section. “It’s not like you have a huge stick to get people to pay fines.”

The Butler County Health District has 57 smoking ban violations at or over the fourth offense, the fourth highest in Ohio, state records say. The county has had 1,810 reports and has undergone 862 investigations since the ban was enacted — the 11th highest number in the state.

Five Ohio establishments that have refused to pay could face revocation of their liquor licenses, said Ohio Attorney General spokesman Dan Tierney.

However, several area bars have continued to violate the ban and not pay, Libby said, and those that don’t pay risk not having their licenses renewed.

Jim Coffman, owner of Scotty’s Pub, said because the bar business is slow in the summer, many establishments cannot pay.

“If there’s a bar that says, ‘We’re not going to smoke anymore,’ they’re just going to go to another bar,” Coffman said.

The manager at Froggy Blues Café refused to comment, and the manager at Village and Towne Pub could not be reached.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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