Legislators push to take health officials' power to ban smoking in public places
When Millie Duncan brought her concerns about a proposed smoking ban to her local health board in Meigs County, she was repulsed by the response of one of the commissioners.
"She told me that having a smoking section in my restaurant was like our public pool down the street having a peeing section and a nonpeeing section," said Duncan, who calls Millie's Restaurant "one of the nicest, cleanest restaurants in Meigs County."
The exchange illustrates an attitude among unelected health-board members around the state that has some Ohio lawmakers looking for a change in the way communities now enact smoking bans.
They are debating a bill making its way through the Ohio General Assembly that would prohibit city and county boards of health from enacting smoking regulations unless they are also approved by local legislative bodies.
The idea is that elected officials are more responsive to the concerns of constituents like Duncan, who joined other Meigs County entrepreneurs last week in testifying for the bill.
Public-health advocate Lisa Rankin - representing the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society - testified that the bill would "cripple" the local boards, which enjoy a technical expertise and an autonomy that elected officials might not.
Rankin said the bill "will make it virtually impossible for a smoking regulation to ever see the light of day in Ohio."
Duncan and Meigs County real estate broker Dottie Turner cheered at the thought.
A smoking ban taking effect there Nov. 12 prohibits smoking in all places where the public might gather, including both their businesses.
"It's more than not being able to smoke in my office. It's that I own the building and they're asking me not to smoke there," Turner said. "It's a property rights issue."
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, a Cleveland Democrat, pointed out that hundreds of unelected boards - all appointed by elected officials - make decisions every day on issues of health, mental health, public water, transportation and other areas.
Rep. Jon Peterson, a Delaware Republican, said he would work with Rankin on a compromise to the bill that would allow boards to go ahead with their bans but allow townships and municipalities an "opt-out option" by a vote of their elected councils.
Rep. James Trakas, an Independence Republican, said he believes such an amendment could get enough House and Senate support to be successful. The Senate already has approved the current version of the bill and would have to agree to any changes.