The Norman Transcript

November 26, 2012

Advocates to push for tobacco control

By Janet Pearson
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Is there a better time than the weekend after Thanksgiving to start making that to-do list for getting healthier? Obviously, counting calories and portion control have to go on the list. And more exercise.

Here are some other ideas. Tobacco users, how about giving up tobacco? And lawmakers, how about giving up tobacco money? And giving cities in Oklahoma the option of crafting their own tobacco-control measures?

Tobacco use is arguably Oklahoma’s biggest health problem, and a main reason the state regularly ranks poorly on measures of health and well-being. It’s the state’s No. 1 cause of preventable death, responsible for about 6,000 deaths a year. At current usage rates, an estimated 87,000 young people will ultimately die prematurely as a result of tobacco use.

The state has made strides in recent years in protecting non-users from the hazards of secondhand smoke. But until the stranglehold that the tobacco industry has over our legislature is broken, don’t look for much more progress.

Try, try again: Despite repeated failures in the past, advocates are gearing up to push passage of a measure giving cities the right to adopt stricter tobacco-control measures than allowed by state law. Last year, House Bill 2267, which would have given cities that right, made it through the state House but didn’t advance out of a Senate committee.

Last month, members of the state Board of Health vowed to once again make local-control legislation their top priority. Also, a new website was launched detailing the tobacco industry’s lobbying efforts in Oklahoma.

The advocates have some new ammunition from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help their cause. Two cities in Oklahoma — Oklahoma City and Tulsa — were singled out in a new CDC report for their weak laws to protect the public from secondhand smoke.

The CDC’s Nov. 16 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that Oklahoma’s two largest cities are among six of the nation’s 50 most populous cities that fail to ensure nonsmoking environments inside all workplaces, restaurants and bars. Nearly all states allow cities to enact their own local ordinances regarding tobacco use.

The report prompted State Health Commissioner Dr. Terry Cline to urge lawmakers to restore “local rights for Oklahoma’s cities and towns to adopt stronger smoking ordinances ... Until then, Oklahoma will continue to struggle to improve the health of our residents and the economic health of our state.”

What’s significant about local control is the fact that, according to the CDC, the “strongest smoking restrictions traditionally have originated at the local level.” That obviously is among reasons the tobacco industry opposes such measures.

Interestingly, the first comprehensive control laws often are adopted by smaller communities, whose success “lays the groundwork for adoption of similar laws by larger cities and, ultimately, at the state level,” according to the report.

Whether they originate at the local or state level, smoke-free laws tend to generate “high levels of public support and compliance, reduce (secondhand smoke) exposure and improve health outcomes.”

What money can buy: While local control is the trend elsewhere, our lawmakers haven’t jumped on that bandwagon. Some longtime advocates believe that’s because of the industry’s generosity toward politicians.

Doug Matheny, former director of tobacco prevention for the state Health Department, retired last year and set up a website, www.tobaccomoney.com, aiming to focus attention on the industry’s lobbying efforts in Oklahoma.

Matheny is calling on legislators to sign a pledge not to accept campaign contributions, meals or other gifts from tobacco PACs or tobacco lobbyists.

“For decades, we’ve watched tobacco lobbyists manage to kill bills they oppose and pass bills they support,” said Matheny in announcing the website’s creation. “Even if it never influenced legislation, money distributed by tobacco lobbyists should be refused as a matter of principle. Accepting money or gifts from representatives of an industry that addicts young people to deadly products is inconsistent with Oklahoma values.”

“The tobacco industry is seeing a major return on its investment in Oklahoma’s political system,” said Dr. Robert McCaffree, co-director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center. “There’s a clear correlation between tobacco industry contributions and the suppression or opposition of legislation intended to reduce tobacco use in our state ...”

According to the website, 84 of the 97 representatives in office as of Oct. 1 have accepted a total of $80,550 in campaign contributions from tobacco lobbyists since 2006. Also since 2006, 45 of them have accepted a total of $29,750 from tobacco PACs. And 86 have accepted a total of $25,304 in meals and other gifts from tobacco lobbyists. Nine representatives have accepted more than $3,000, and only one of them voted for tobacco-control legislation last year.

Over in the Senate, 41 of 48 senators have accepted a total of $74,750 in campaign funds from tobacco lobbyists since 2006. Twenty-two have accepted a total of $19,750 from PACs, and 42 have accepted a total of $12,615 in meals and other gifts.

Eleven senators have accepted a total of $3,000 or more.

The local-control measure was not heard in the Senate last year.

Wonder why.

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