Anti-tobacco groups see opportunity in new lawmakers
Oklahoma City — At least one-quarter of the Oklahoma Senate and nearly half of the House could be new members in February, and John Woods sees that as an opportunity to change the state's tobacco laws.
Woods, executive director of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, unveiled a plan Wednesday to cut Oklahoma's adult smoking rate nearly in half. It includes some major policy shifts, such as raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21; prohibiting smoking in cars when children are present; banning menthol and other flavors in tobacco; increasing penalties for selling to underage people; raising the cigarette tax by $1.50; and getting rid of a provision in Oklahoma labor law that makes it illegal to discriminate against workers based on their smoking status.
Cutting the smoking rate from 19.6 percent to 10 percent is a “moonshot” goal, Woods said, but turnover in the Legislature opens up the possibility of policy changes. TSET, which administers Oklahoma's share of the proceeds from a multi-state lawsuit against major tobacco companies, is charged with reducing tobacco use in Oklahoma.
“We really see it as a fresh start,” he said.
This session, lawmakers will have to grapple with regulating medical marijuana, including where patients may smoke it in public, Woods said. Those discussions represent an opportunity to close exemptions in the state's clean air law, which bans indoor smoking in most public places, but exempts bars and clubs. Those exemptions put bartenders and wait staff at risk from second-hand smoke, he said.
“Smoke is smoke, and now's the time to address that for all Oklahomans,” he said.
A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that having a separate smoking section, cleaning the air and adding ventilation may help reduce second-hand smoke exposure, but that the only way to eliminate it is to not allow smoking. People exposed to second-hand smoke are at a higher risk of heart and lung problems, and some cancers.
All of the TSET plan's points would require legislative action, and it's difficult to predict how far they might advance. Last year, lawmakers approved a $1-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes to pay for teacher pay raises. It was the first time in more than a decade that Oklahoma increased its cigarette tax.
Woods acknowledged that some of the plans' elements aren't likely to get through this session, but said supporters would begin working to build support over the next few years.
Some of the policies already are in place elsewhere. Six states and more than 300 cities nationwide have raised the age to buy tobacco to 21. Eight states ban smoking in a car when a child is present, as do Puerto Rico and Guam. The FDA banned flavors other than menthol cigarettes in 2009, though flavored cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes are still on the market. San Francisco went a step further in June, banning menthol and other flavors in all nicotine products, including e-cigarettes.
Increasing the price of cigarettes and raising the age to purchase them have clearer evidence they work than most of the other provisions. In 2015, a report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that raising the age to buy tobacco would reduce the number of young-adult smokers, but the more significant impact would be among underage teens, who often rely on friends who are 18 to buy them cigarettes. Young people also were more sensitive to price increases, and less likely to become habitual smokers.
Michelle Stephens, a TSET board member, said the board is planning to assist the plan by offering additional money for youth smoking prevention programs and for cessation programs targeting groups with high rates of smoking.
“We know changing Oklahoma's culture takes time, and we're up against a well-organized foe with deep pockets,” she said.