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Put It Out: Smoking Ban Trend Growing Across Ohio

Joe Mazzola runs into a lot of people he knows these days. And he doesn't waste any time letting people know what he's up to.

Joe Mazzola: This is to provide smoke-free public places in Garfield Heights.

Mazzola is a former smoker. He now works with Tobacco Free Ohio in the regional office of the American Lung Association. Mazzola, along with his twin brother, Russ, and a handful of volunteers have been collecting signatures from registered voters in Garfield Heights, where they live. They're heading a petition drive to put the Garfield Heights Clean Indoor Air Act on the ballot this November. The proposed legislation would ban smoking in all public places, except bars.

Just two weeks ago, Mazzola and his team turned in almost 1,300 signatures to get the process started.

Wendy Leatherberry: It's been very exciting to be involved here in Garfield Heights because it's such a grass roots initiative and really lots of volunteers from both inside Garfield Heights and then also, from the Cuyahoga County Tobacco Control Coalition.

Wendy Leatherberry is a Policy and Planning Associate with the Federation for Community Planning. She's been helping with the effort, though not a Garfield resident herself. Leatherberry says if voters say yes to the ban, it would set an example in northeast Ohio that can't be ignored.

Wendy Leatherberry: I think it'll send a real message to both the leadership in Garfield but also the leadership throughout Cuyahoga County, throughout Ohio really that, that it really is time and that the right of an individual to be able to go out for dinner and go shopping and breathe clean air is the predominant right that we should all be worried about.

Arnie Elzey: It's been show just about every place these ordinances have come in, business has dropped 20-25%, some places, New York, even dropped as high as 40% and lose their sales. And that's something the small business people just can't afford to do in a down economy.

Arnie Elzey is starting a petition drive of his own. He too wants voters to decide on a smoking ban where he lives, but he hopes voters say NO. Elzey is president of the North West Ohio Licensed Beverage Association. He's also the owner of Arnie's Grill in Toledo. The city council there just passed a smoking ban last week. But Toledo's law doesn't give bars a break. So now bar owners are ready to fight back. They started collecting signatures yesterday to also get a referendum on the November ballot.

Arnie Elzey: City council's basically said that you can build a smoking room in your restaurant but it can only be 30% of your seating capacity. That's really stupid when 70% of your people smoke and 30% of your people don't, or 25% don't, or whatever it is for each individual establishment. We feel, these rooms can cost between 20 and $80,000 to build. Then you have to bring your building up to code, A.D. accessible, everything else, and your talking just a ton of money small businesses can't afford.

Elzey and his fellow petitioners have only three weeks to collect nearly 10,000 valid signatures. If they do, the smoking ban will be on hold until Election Day. A report by the Centers for Disease Control from 2000 shows Toledo had the highest rate of adult smoking of 99 metropolitan areas in the country. And Cleveland's not far behind at number four. Political and community leaders throughout northeast Ohio are keeping an eye on what happens in places like Toledo and Garfield Heights, as the smoking debate seems to be getting hazier. There are a couple of other cities in the region considering anti-smoking legislation. But don't expect anything to happen too quickly. In Cleveland, Councilman Matt Zone is heading a task force to examine the issue. Acting Health Director Matt Carroll says Cleveland's Clean Indoor Air Act was last updated in 1987.

Matt Caroll: We do plan to have a full engagement of interested parties on both sides of the issue and at the moment it's probably appropriate that we haven't had too much community discussion because we are in the very early stages of the process.

Carroll says the committee still has a lot of research to do and consider before any decision is made on whether or not to introduce a smoking ban ordinance in the city. And this fall, Lakewood may be on the same exploratory path. Lakewood Councilman Dennis Dunn says he plans on having a citizens review committee formed in September.

Dennis Dunn: That's why we're taking this slowly in Lakewood. And that's why instead of just putting an ordinance on the council docket and opening it up for discussion, I'm asking that we form a citizen's committee, which will, of respected people, of business owners, of bar owners, of health professionals, who will do a, promote a constructive dialogue within the community as to how best to approach this.

But in a city like Lakewood, garnering support for a non-smoking measure could be particularly challenging. The densely populated suburb is home to more than 60 bars. In the meantime, Joe Mazzola and the rest of his volunteers in Garfield Heights still need about 500 more signatures. Then it's up to voters on November 4th to decide whether or not the Clean Indoor Air Act should be put out. In Garfield Heights, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.