There was a time not long ago when smokers were free to light up almost anywhere, including restaurants, offices, airplanes, and even hospitals.
In 2006, Ohio voters passed a "Smoke Free Act" by a 60 to 40 percent margin, banning smoking in most public places. But the law isn't always followed.
On two nights in late April, our station's hidden cameras found people puffing away inside five different bars around the Valley. Smoke Free Ohio "No Smoking" signs are clearly posted, but even some bar owners and bartenders share cigarettes with their customers and provide different types of ashtrays.
To demonstrate how easy it is to light up, here is an exchange between reporter Dan Martin and a local bartender:
Martin: "Can I smoke these in here?"
Bartender: "Yes sir, you most certainly can."
Martin: "You got something to ash in or something?"
Bartender: "Yeah, no problem."
Martin: "What about the No Smoking signs and stuff?"
Bartender: "Well, it's illegal, it's against the law."
Mahoning County Health Commissioner Patricia Sweeney said they enforce the law every time there is a complaint.
"We only have the ability to go and inspect when we receive a complaint, and we have always done that," said Sweeney. "Public Health is population health. We're not in the business of conducting stings."
Health department records show chronic offenders and fines do increase with each offense. Intentional violations, where bar employees smoke with their patrons, can double the penalty. One bar on Mahoning Avenue has six violations.
Acting Youngstown Health Commissioner Erin Bishop said she knows of bars where the regulars take up collections to help owners pay their fines.
"I don't put the blame on the smokers. It's the bar owners," said Bishop. "I mean, I can't believe that they're allowing this to happen in their bar. But it's all about making the money. They're going to lose their patronage if they don't let them smoke."
The Youngstown City Health District has a staff of two inspectors to investigate smoking violations along with every other complaint in the city. Mahoning County has 13 sanitarians.
Some of the undercover video taken during this report was screened over the weekend at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in Boardman.
"It makes me very angry because I've lost people to lung cancer that were smokers," said American Cancer Society volunteer Danielle Procopio. "I don't really want to inhale that garbage if I don't want to, so I think that if it's a state law I wish that bar owners would be more conscious of that. But I also wish the enforcement was happening."
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said the Ohio Department of Health keeps up with smoking complaints when those calls are made.
"You know, these people aren't going to be calling on themselves," said Schiavoni.
Sweeney said her advice would be for anyone who is bothered by the smoking to make a complaint.
"Absolutely, absolutely. That's totally within their right and actually is a responsibility," said Sweeney.
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