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Bars Put Liquor License At Risk If Smoking Fines Pile Up

Area bars and restaurants that continue to violate the state smoking cigarettes ban and fail to pay their fines could put their liquor licenses at risk in the future when they are up for renewal.

Until now, the Ohio Division of Liquor Control never used smoking cigarettes-ban violations and unpaid fines as criteria when evaluating renewal requests for liquor licenses. But come the next renewal period in June 2012, under a new state initiative, local businesses who flout the smoking cigarettes ban law may find themselves in trouble.

No local businesses owe nearly as much as Peg’s Pub, a Hamilton County bar that racked up nearly $56,000 in fines. However, the Fraternal Order of Eagles in New Carlisle owes $3,750, Kinsler’s Cafe on East Main Street and Sidetrax Bar on West Main Street both owe around $1,700, and Cedar Pub on West Main Street owes $1,200, according to the Clark County Combined Health District.

So far, health officials have been unable to truly curb repeat offenders, especially since it’s so difficult to charge businesses with a violation in the first place.

Clark County has done 571 investigations between 2007, when the ban was first enacted, through March of this year, according to the health district. Only 32 of them yielded fines.

After a complaint is filed, “if we go in and don’t see the violation happening, we can’t do anything,” said Dan Chatfield, county director of environmental health.

Charles Patterson, Clark County health commissioner, said enforcing the smoking cigarettes-ban actually costs the health district money.

In 2010, they spent about $2,300, double the fines that were collected that year.

“We spend the extra money to make sure we have the healthiest environment we can,” Patterson said.

In recent months, the Department of Health, the attorney general’s office and Liquor Control discussed strategies to try to force the worst violators of the smoking cigarettes ban to either comply with the law or face serious punishment, House said.

The Department of Health sent Liquor Control a certified affidavit listing the fines Peg’s Pub owed, and the division used its authority to reject the pending permit renewal, said Matt Mullins, spokesman for the Division of Liquor Control.

Liquor renewals for this part of the state were on June 1.

Mullins said Liquor Control plans to continue to work with the Department of Health and attorney general’s office to pursue action against establishments with repeated smoking cigarettes violations and large amounts of unpaid fines.

House said the liquor licenses of businesses that owe a few thousand dollars and have few violations are not in danger. But some businesses across the Miami Valley owe substantial sums.

From 2007 through March, the Clark County Combined Health District had issued 32 smoking cigarettes fines worth almost $24,000 to local businesses, but owners have only paid about $8,800.

About 30 businesses in Ohio owe at least $15,000 or more in smoking cigarettes violation fines, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health.

That does not include pending fines or costs from the attorney general’s office.

Including Peg’s Pub and the Miami Valley Sports Bar, only nine businesses in the state owe $30,000 or more. Three businesses owe more than $50,000.

As of July 5, businesses owed $2.5 million in fines, but only paid $1.77 million, according to the state health department.

Local health officials stress that the goal isn’t about the money, it’s about health.

“The important thing is that we do anything we can to reduce employee exposure to second-hand smoke cigarettes ... It’s about making sure folks follow the law and we’re providing a safe environment for our citizens,” Patterson said.

He added that the top causes of death in Clark County are heart disease and cancer, both of which can be caused by smoking cigarettes and second-hand smoke.

“Really I wish there was a way (to enforce the law) without fines,” Patterson said. “We choose to enforce it in Clark County to make it a healthier place.

But Phil Craig, executive director of the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, which represents about 1,000 permit holders, said his organization is reaching out to Liquor Control, the attorney general’s office and other agencies to find “a better process” that works.

“I am hopeful that we will have some fruitful discussions in the future and come (out) with a better process,” he said.

Owners of some of the local businesses with the largest accumulations of unpaid fines were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

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