Saturday, July 27, 2002

Agency wants public smoking ban

So do others in Ohio; court still deciding whether they have the right

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS - A southern Ohio city is debating a comprehensive smoking ban, the latest in a series of such proposals around the state.

        But the Belpre City Health District is awaiting an Ohio Supreme Court ruling on whether local health boards have the authority to enact such bans.

        The Belpre health board is debating whether to forbid smoking in all indoor gathering places, including restaurants.

        Don McCullough, the president of Belpre city council, said he would oppose the regulation because an unelected board should not have the ability to put such a sweeping ban in place.

        The same issue is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, which will decide the legality of similar bans in Lucas and Meigs counties. At stake is whether health boards can bypass elected officials to impose anti-smoking rules.

        The justices will determine whether Ohio law allows a local health board to prohibit smoking in all public places and, if so, whether that violates the Ohio Constitution.

        A health board has a legal right and an obligation to address what it considers a significant health problem, Belpre Health Commissioner Charles Hammer said Friday.

        “We've got ample evidence right now that tobacco smoke, including second-hand tobacco smoke, is a health concern,” he said.

        Mr. Hammer promised to work with as many groups as possible, including city council, before putting any regulation in place. The board also will await the court decision, he said.

        Mr. McCullough said he would prefer a voter referendum over even a city law.

        “It's nothing to do with whether smoking's right or wrong,” Mr. McCullough said Friday. “We feel if you legislate, you're taking someone's right away. If people invest money in a business it's their decision - all they have to do is put a sign on the door.”

        Communities have tried for years to enact smoking bans, usually unsuccessfully.

        In 1994, five local health boards in Franklin County tried to introduce a countywide smoking ban in virtually all public buildings except bars.

        Before the ban could take effect, a judge ruled it was improper. The judge said regulatory bodies such as health boards don't have authority to grant exemptions.

        In 1999, a judge ruled that the Delaware City-County Board of Health cannot enforce a rule regulating smoking in public places.

        In 1992, the Licking County Health Board required restaurants to set aside a nonsmoking section and banned smoking in most public buildings, including private stores. That ban survived federal challenges and is in place today.

        One restaurant owner in Belpre who opposes the proposed ban said it is a mistake to give the health board the ability to enact such regulations. “If they want to pass an ordinance in Belpre to ban smoking through council, that would be a better way to handle this,” said Steve Null, owner of Belrock Restaurant.


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