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Will the smoke settle? Featured

7:20am EDT October 30, 2001

Ohio's Legislature Ohio's Legislature is winding down on debate of a bill to transfer final decisions on rules regarding tobacco sale or use out of the hands of health boards and into those of local elected government officials.

Prompted by news that some health boards in Ohio were moving toward implementing smoking bans, Sen. Lynn Wachtmann introduced Senate Bill 128 in June, and within a month successfully got approval by his side of the Statehouse. The bill passed the House's State Goverment Committee Oct. 24 and was scheduled for a floor vote Oct. 30. However, both sides were meeting with Gov. Taft, who promised to veto the bill in its latest form, to try to work out a compromise.

Without the bill, rules and orders regulating the sale or use of cigarettes and other tobacco products are instituted by boards of health, which consist of appointed members. Wachtmann wants local governments, such as city councils, to OK those rules before they're implemented. That way, he says, business owners will be better able to voice their opinions on the issues, and elected officials will have to answer to their constituents for their actions.

Opponents of the bill, however, include the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association, which say board of health members already are held accountable by the elected officials who appoint them.

The bill, they say, would make it virtually impossible for a county to have a regulation regarding smoking. For example, a countywide smoking regulation in Franklin County, which holds the state capital, would require five local boards of health to go to 42 elected bodies, including 12 cities, 13 villages and 17 townships for the adoption of a regulation before it could be enacted.

''We feel (the bill) takes away the ability of local boards of health to fulfill their obligation to protect the health of the community,'' says Jodi Govern, general counsel for the Ohio Department of Health.

''Of course our concern stems from our concern about environmental tobacco smoke, also called secondhand smoke.'' ''Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in Ohio. The first is smoking, itself, and the second, alcohol use.''

''Another major concern of ours is in restaurants and bars. It's forgotten, but those places are work sites. They have employees. We have strong concerns that that is an occupational health hazard,'' Govern adds, noting that lung cancer risks for restaurant workers are 1.5 times higher than for nonsmokers who live with a smoker and 4.4 times higher for bar workers than for people only exposed to secondhand smoke in the home.

She also argues that business owners already can state their case for or against such regulations at public hearings held before health boards adopt the rules.

Opponents say the bill will complicate matters because board of health rules will not necessarily go into effect uniformly throughout health districts that have many governmental jurisdictions within their boundaries.

''Consumers and restaurants would have a difficult time understanding where a ban is in effect and where it's not,'' Govern says. ''It might just be a matter of which side of the road you're on.''

Proponents, meanwhile, insist that smoking bans and tobacco sales restrictions limit not just individuals' rights but also the rights of businesses to run themselves as they see fit.

''If regulations are going to be passed upon the business people, they should be done by elected officials, not by appointed people once or twice removed from elected officials,'' argues Wachtmann, who represents 10 counties in rural Northwest Ohio and himself owns a business, Maumee Valley Bottlers Inc.

Organizations such as the Ohio Grocers Association, Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and Ohio Restaurant Association agree.

''We simply don't think nonelected officials should be making such drastic business decisions,'' says Josh Sanders, public affairs director for the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and executive director of the Ohio Association of Convenience Stores.

Boards of health implement issues such as licensing systems and penalties, he points out.

''They don't have to answer to the business community when, in effect, some of these rules they pass could put smaller businesses out of a job,'' Sanders says.

Sanders says while the bill will allow business owners to get a fair hearing in the process before elected government bodies, the business community must take advantage of that situation.

''Business owners cannot say, if we get this passed, everything's fine and not do anything about it,'' Sanders says, especially considering that passage of the law means more government coming into their businesses. ''They're the ones that on the local level need to make sure their business is run the way they want it to be run.''

To keep track of S.B. 128, visit the Web site of the 124th Ohio General Assembly at www.legislature.state.oh.us, type in the bill number and select the Senate option. How to reach: Sen. Lynn Wachtmann, (614) 466-8150; Josh Sanders, Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, (614) 221-7833; Jodi Govern, Ohio Department of Health, (614) 644-8562

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is a senior editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN Magazine.