Millions in Ohio smoking fines uncollected
Ohio has largely snuffed out workplace smoking, but law breakers have left a trail of unpaid fines in their wake.
Put into effect in Dec. 2006, the Ohio Smoke Free Workplace Law banned indoor smoking at bars, restaurants and any place of employment.
Enforcement of the law has been driven by complaints, inspections and fines for businesses that don't comply. But collecting on those fines hasn't always been easy.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office reports it currently has more than $2.6 million in unpaid smoking fines on its books out of $4.2 million in fines assessed since the law went into effect.
Some of those fines are in payment plans, while others may never be collected as the businesses have closed or employed strategies to stymie the state's debt collectors, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
But the state has had more luck collecting since the workplace smoking ban was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2012, he said.
"We had anecdotally seen in the news or heard that businesses would rack up fines and hope that the law would have been declared unconstitutional," he said.
Some of the fines outstanding date back to the early years of the law, Tierney said.
While many businesses now pay their smoking fines, bars and restaurants that make no effort to do so can face having liquor permits renewals denied, he said.
Business owners have avoided paying fines by operating only with cash, closing down and reopening under a new corporate entity, operating with rented equipment and space - and thus no assets, and by the old-fashioned approach of being very hard to get a hold of, Tierney said.
A state database of smoking fines lists 449 businesses with debts ranging from four cents to more than $118,000.
The bar with the largest outstanding fine tally, the Suburban Inn in Middleburg Heights, fought the state tooth and nail but eventually was denied the renewal of its liquor license in 2014 and has since reportedly closed.