Two-thirds of Ohio smoking ban fines are unpaid

The Ohio Department of Health and the attorney general's office have collected only one-third of the $2.2 million in fines levied for facilities that have violated the state's smoking ban since enforcement began four years ago, according to state data.

Smoking is prohibited in most indoor, public places under the ban, which went into effect in 2007. State and local health officials have issued more than 2,300 fines totaling more than $2.2 million since May 2007, but about $1.5 million had not been paid as of April 30, according to a report by the Dayton Daily News, which analyzed the data.

The newspaper found the percentage of fines collected drops each year. It was 81 percent in 2007 but just 26 percent last year.

The agencies involved in collecting the fines say they do what they can to get the money.

Most places comply with the ban, but some officials argue the holdouts would change their ways if the state collected the fines more aggressively. The concerns come as Gov. John Kasich was calling for significant cuts in anti-tobacco money in his two-year budget proposal, the newspaper said.

"I think for an enforcement program to be effective, there has to be a hammer," Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jim Gross said. "And it's pretty clear right now this program does not have an effective penalty system to change that behavior."

The number of complaints statewide has decreased each year, from nearly 22,000 in Ohio in 2007 to about 6,800 last year.

The Ohio Department of Health believes complaints are down because most businesses comply with the law, but it can't say for certain, spokeswoman Jennifer House said. The department sends out invoices for fines, and those that go unpaid after 45 days are referred to the attorney general, she said.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike DeWine, said the office tries to collect and sometimes has to hire a special counsel to collect a fine on its behalf. The Attorney General's Office has referred 339 smoking cases to the special counsel, Tierney said. Fifty were paid or settled in court.

The enforcement system is frustrating local health officials because 90 percent of the collected fines are intended to go toward investigations.

In Montgomery County, Gross said the county public health department levied $220,000 worth of fines but has received only $15,800 in collections from the state and has used other money to cover the $30,000 it spends annually to investigate complaints.

The county's biggest offender is the West Carrollton bar Bojangles, where 134 smoking complaints and $1,100 in fines aren't deterring patrons from lighting up.

Bojangles doesn't offer food or serve anyone under 21, so owner Jo Risk sees the smoking ban as a threat to the survival of the family-owned business.

"This is putting me out of business, and I don't think West Carrollton or anyone else can afford to lose any more tax dollars," she said.

--- Information from: Dayton Daily News,

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)