MANSFIELD — Altoids tins have become the ashtrays of choice at local watering holes.
They’ve replaced all those old, cheap glass ashtrays that departed more than two years ago after Ohio voters passed a referendum to ban smoking in public places.
While you no longer have to worry about getting lung cancer over breakfast at Denny’s, at most veterans clubs and plenty of bars in Richland County, the burn goes on as beery, smoky nights are pretty much the same beery, smoky nights they’ve always been.
“Right after they passed this, I called the health commissioner and said, ‘What do I have to do to comply?’ ” said Joe Sinnett, owner of Joez Lounge.
“And he said, ‘I have no idea.’ So I said, ‘Okay, you make damn sure you let me know what my obligations are on this law. I have got obligations in the liquor laws. I have got obligations with the food license. You let me know. But I’m not doing anything that goes against the Constitution of the United States.’ ”
Sinnett’s bar, off U.S. 30 east of Mansfield, has received 23 complaints under the smoking law, the last shortly before Christmas 2008. He’s been fined at least five times but only paid $200 pending appeals. His last inspection by Sue Osborne, the Mansfield/Ontario/Richland County Health Department’s primary inspector, was earlier this month.
“I don’t know what it was,” Sinnett, 60, said about the latest check, “But I’ve had it. I’ve absolutely had it. I ripped down all the signs.”
He’s owned the place since 2004 and, like most area bar owners, doesn’t have a beef with the smoking ban itself. It’s the onus it puts on bar owners to self-police their establishments that troubles Sinnett and his peers.
“I don’t want to be a cop,” said Paul Hauke, 61, a Sandusky-area bar owner who earned attention less than two months ago for smoking in the halls of the Erie County Health Department.
For that stunt, Hauke became the first person in Ohio charged with violating the ban as an individual.
“We’ve had no leadership at all from the state, county, anybody,” Hauke said. “We’ve been given no direction at all on how to handle anything. I didn’t go into business to police people. If they light up, they know the law.”
Betty Frazier, co-owner of Finish Line Bar & Grill since 2006, says her patrons are like family, and it’s not her place to tell a customer to snub out a smoke.
“We have no smoking signs. We don’t have ashtrays. This bar has been here since 1953. There’s no kids. It’s just friends and family,” Frazier, 45, said. “If you light up, I’m not going to kick you out.”
Sinnett takes his anti-ban fervor to more spiritual levels. The licensed minister goes by “Reverend Joe” and calls his lounge a tabernacle.
“If you get out a thesaurus and break down the meaning of worship, religion and ceremony,’ then I have the right, in worship, to allow people to use tobacco in observance of freedoms denied or people who’ve died and come back,” Sinnett said.
He’s smoked multiple packs a day for more than four decades, mostly Marlboros, and has voluntarily seen a doctor three times — ever — mostly at the behest of a spouse.
Sinnett, of course, isn’t the area’s only scofflaw. The now defunct Clover’s Bar & Grill, Belcher’s House of Rock, The Den and most veterans clubs are serial violators. But they slide because of weak enforcement and a resilient bar culture that says that for many bar-goers, stumbling home smelling of booze and smokes is part of the cost of admission.
“Drinking and whiskey and cigarettes and everything has gone together for centuries,” Gary Craft Jr. said over beers at Finish Line.
Craft, 37, doesn’t smoke.
“I’ve owned two bars in this town and lost one because of the ban,” he said.
Craft now owns Pappy’s, a garbage business. Like fellow bar patrons, he thinks the ban at best is a mixed message.
“I think, golly, haven’t they made enough off cigarettes?” Craft said. “They’ve created a monster, and now they want it to stop.”
The health department, of course, doesn’t agree. Though for environmental health director Matt Work, charged with ban enforcement, the requirements for busting bars and other businesses are such that, most of the time, his hands are tied.
“The only way we can actually enforce this is through a complaint,” he said. “If I walk into a bar and see someone smoking, I have to call the complaint in to the state and hear back from them first. The rules are different than anything else we do.”
Thirty-seven of Ohio’s 88 counties have shed the investigation units at their local health departments and referred enforcement to the state, which has two full-time investigators who follow complaints and scour Ohio’s bars and offices for ashtrays and cigarette butts. Richland County has kept its unit, but health commissioner Stan Saalman admitted to being tempted, like others, to nix it.
“I certainly have those thoughts, especially with the economy turning the way it has. It may be a program that we may consider cutting,” Saalman said. “But I think it’s a very important program for the health of our community.”
The county says it had collected $7,346 in revenues — collected fines and state assistance for enforcement offered when the law was newly enacted — by mid-March on 306 cases. The program has cost some $43,800 in wages. Each case brings in an average of $143 to pursue and brings back an average fine of $23.
“Smoking is not a moneymaker for us,” said Work, who added the department believes in its basic purpose.
Recently, Work met with a reporter at the now closed Clover’s Bar & Grill to observe a typical smoking ban inspection. Before inspector Sue Osborne came in, seven or eight twenty-somethings sat around the bar drinking steadily. A slow night, but still early, one or two patrons smoked casually, using mint tins as ash receptacles. The bartender periodically emptied their contents.
Osborne went about her work with little ado. And before most patrons knew it, ashtrays had been removed, whispered warnings heeded and Osborne was gone. The place slowly emptied.
For those in the fight with long memories, the pivotal moment in the smoking ban came not when Ohio voters, at 58 percent, passed the ban in November 2006, but in the months afterward before the state began enforcing it.
“I would remind everyone that the ballot language people voted for specifically exempted private clubs and family-owned businesses,” said state Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati.
The actual ballot language didn’t say as much, but what many ban opponents now say is they never thought some of their favorite haunts would be affected.
“A lot of my friends voted for the ban because they thought it exempted places like (Finish Line),” Craft said.
The American Cancer Society’s Ohio chapter, which was the primary funding force behind the original referendum, disputes the claim. The organization released a survey in May 2008 showing not only did 97 percent of Ohioans know what they were voting for, 63 percent said the ban should remain.
That doesn’t satisfy bar patrons. Mike Weiss, a 43-year-old fabricator and 25-year smoker, said that a restaurant smoking ban and local tavern prohibitions were substantively different.
“If you can’t wait until after you finish eating to have a cigarette,” the Mansfield resident said, “then ease up.”
Seitz argues along many of the same lines. In the spring of 2007, as the Ohio Department of Health had public hearings to refine the smoking ban after its passage, the department became stingy with exceptions. Truckers who drive alone won back their right to puff, but private clubs, despite a late court injunction, never did.
Seitz, along with state Sen. Gary Cates, R-Hamilton, and Sen. Timothy Grendell, R-Geauga County, co-sponsored Senate Bill 120, which would exempt private clubs who have paid employees and family-owned businesses. Still, he recognizes an uphill battle. The bill’s original co-sponsor and fiercest supporter, Sen. Robert Schuler, a Hamilton County Republican, died June 19 after a long battle with an undisclosed form of cancer.
“Obviously, my dear friend Senator Schuler has just been in the ground,” Seitz said on June 26. “The earliest (we do it) will be the fall, practically speaking.”
Dick Allen, owner of Zeno’s, a Columbus bar the state health department says has been cited with five $2,500 smoking-ban fines — second most in Ohio — said legislative action was absolutely necessary.
“We’re hoping that it will pass,” Allen said. “We’re mounting a program with them to fight it on a constitutional level.”
On a recent Thursday at Finish Line, a group of men sat on the patio, in the sunshine, enjoying smokes and beers. Empty, crumpled cans of Busch Light and Bud Light crowded the bar. A band set up. Twenty or so customers sat around circular tables. Frazier, the co-owner, told a visitor about the six different benefit shows she’s hosted for bar regulars and friends. The next, Aug. 1, is for her brother, recently diagnosed with cancer.
Soon, shots of Dr. Mc- Gillicuddy’s Cherry Bomb were poured into hard plastic cups, each with a splash of Squirt. The jukebox blared country music. Partiers grabbed their 4-ounce shots, clinked and cheered.
“To beer and cigarettes!” one celebrant toasted.
As they drank, Frazier recalled what she liked about the place, whose only staff is her two daughters, her husband and herself.
“At 9 o’clock, you’ll be lucky if you have a sitting place,” she said. “This is family.”