The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 3, 2014

State suing bars to collect smoking fines

By Mark Gokavi
Dayton Daily News

DAYTON — Doctor Doodles Lounge co-owner George Sexton said he quit smoking cigarettes after 20 years. But until lately he couldn’t seem to get his customers to do the same, particularly inside his business, and that has landed him in trouble with the state.

Failure to get his patrons to stop smoking in his bar and ignoring smoke-free workplace violations means Sexton faces more than $47,000 in fines, interest and collection costs.

The Ohio Dept. of Health has sued George and Wanda Sexton in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court after other collection methods failed for multiple violations the past few years.

The lawsuits seeking monetary judgments against bar owners are among the latest efforts the Ohio Attorney General’s Office is using to recoup more of the fines owed to the state.

An AG’s office spokesman said their collections database does not organize information based on lawsuits filed, so they can’t say how many fines have reached that point. But statistics provided by the AGS’s office do show that of the $3.8 million in smoking fines levied since July 1, 2007, only $1.5 million has been collected through Jan. 31, 2014.

“We’re not trying to be unreasonable, but at some point you just have to say enough’s enough,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told the Dayton Daily News. “We often file civil lawsuits in collections. It gives you more options and collections tools to obtain payments to satisfy the debt to the state.”

Other tools include placing a hold on or revoking business’ liquor licenses or a cash box levy which enables collectors to use a court order to empty out cash registers to satisfy debts.

Doctor Doodles Lounge’s liquor license is up for renewal in May, so George Sexton is making plans to pay up.

“I’m going to do something. . I’m going to try to strike up some sort of deal and start paying on it,” he said. “Hell, now it’s $5,000 every time I get caught, so I made (customers) go outside (to smoke).”

Sexton said he put up a plastic wrap around the patio so customers didn’t have to face the wind during this cold winter: “If you’re a smoker and you’ve got to get up and walk outside just to smoke a cigarette and freeze your butt off, you know, it’s not fun.”

Other area bars have faced sanctions for not paying fines.

Coyotes Pub and Grub on State Route 741 in Miami Twp. owed about $25,000 in fines and faced a non-renewal of their liquor license when they went out of business last year.

Miami Valley Sports Bar on State Route 725 in West Carrollton reached a settlement to pay their debt. As of Jan. 31, they had paid about $14,500 of an estimated $61,000 due to the AG’s office.

The lawsuit states the Sextons owe a combined $47,105.90 in fines, interest and collection costs for allowing customers to smoke inside, having ashtrays present and the like.

DeWine said once a case is referred to his office, special counsel are hired to file the suit. Sometimes, the bars go out of business, but the ones that remain are threatened with their liquor license.

“They’re going to have to eventually pay them,” Sexton said. “They’re not going to go away.”

Sexton said the first seven years he owned the bar were better than the past seven when the smoking ban has been in effect.

Despite quitting cigarettes, Sexton will still use his patio at work when temperatures finally start to rise: “I smoke cigars now.”