Currently, Oklahoma and Tennessee are the only states that fully bar local governments from ordinances that restrict tobacco. And therein lies the rub.
State Health Commissioner Terry Cline is on the side of local control.
“We expect big opposition from this multibillion[-dollar] industry,” he said. “There are plenty of paid tobacco lobbyists fighting this legislation. Just follow the money and you’ll see the financial interest in this.”
According to the website tobaccomoney.com, 12 tobacco lobbyists are opposing Senate Bill 36, authored by Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, which seeks to repeal Oklahoma’s preemption statute.
“Why would the tobacco industry be interested in paying 12 lobbyists? To keep smoking rates high,” Cline said. “Every community should have the right to make decisions for themselves, but that’s what big tobacco fears the most. It’s easy to lobby at one place (the state Capitol) instead of hundreds of communities across the state.”
Previous efforts to repeal preemption have died in the wake of lobbying efforts by the tobacco industry.
Last year, the state House approved a repeal measure, but it ended up killed in a Senate committee.
Proponents are more encouraged this session. Gov. Mary Fallin made repeal part of her legislative agenda in her Feb. 4 State of the State address.
“Almost 6,000 Oklahomans die each year due to smoking-related illnesses,” she told legislators. “That includes both of my parents. My father died from a smoking- related illness when he was younger than I am today.”
Statistics indicate that the Sooner State has the fourth-highest smoking rate in the nation and ranks as the third highest in cardiovascular disease death rate.
State vs. local control
Brian Hatchell, spokesman for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, told Oklahoma Gazette in an email that “state government is better suited to determine smoking policies that affect the economic well-being of the state as a whole. Smoking restrictions can have a devastating effect on many businesses. As such, tax revenues that go into the state treasury may be adversely affected by a local government’s decision.”
Cline dismissed that argument as a “red herring” always raised in these political battles.
“The tobacco industry claims repealing pre-emption will raise taxes. It won’t raise taxes,” he said. “This isn’t about the retail sale of tobacco.”
Hatchell contends other problems can arise. Repealing pre-emption, he said, can create confusion among cit-ies and towns and possibly prevent economic development.
“Allowing localities to regulate private businesses’ smoking policy creates a confusing patchwork of regulations,” he said. “Many chain or multiple location restaurants and bars will not locate or expand in states that have confusing and contradictory local laws, ordinances and regulations.”
Moreover, Hatchell suggested that local control over smoking ordinances is sure to pit communities against one another.
“A local jurisdiction may not implement private business smoking regulations because a neighbor jurisdiction already limits smoking,” he wrote. “By doing this, one jurisdiction gains an economic advantage over the other by offering a less restrictive operating environment.”
Existing Oklahoma law prohibits smoking in some indoor workplaces, with exceptions for private offices, separately ventilated smoking rooms and owner-occupied workplaces not open to the public. Restaurants can accommodate smoking and nonsmoking sections if they have separately ventilated smoking rooms. Bars, bingo parlors and retail tobacco stores are exempt from smoking regulations.
Ten cities throughout the state, including Oklahoma City, have adopted support positions for SB 36.
“Everyone has the right to breathe smoke-free air,” said Pat Marshall, Oklahoma government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “City councils recognize this and want to protect their citizens but can’t do anything about it until the Oklahoma Legislature acts.”