Last month, Gov. Mary Fallin announced her plans to support an initiative petition in 2014 to change the way tobacco is regulated in Oklahoma.
“A direct vote to the people is very new, and is a dramatic new tactic to repeal tobacco control preemption in Oklahoma,” said Michael Givel, a University of Oklahoma political scientist and the co-author of the upcoming book Heartland Tobacco War, out this summer.
Fallin says the details of the statewide ballot initiative are still being worked out, but it would likely allow cities and towns to adopt regulations that are tougher than state laws.
Givel says the battle to repeal preemption has been going on since the Smoking in Public Places Act first passed in 1987, and so far, the tobacco industry and their allies have been winning.
“The law is uniform and fairly weak, and they are afraid of vigorous enforcement based on local needs and perception,” Givel said. “The industry and its allies will throw a lot of money to defeat this, and the health organizations may be outspent.”
In Givel’s 2005 report on the relationship between the tobacco industry and the Oklahoma legislature, he writes that it took 17 years for Oklahoma to raise the cigarette tax five cents. Between 1987 and 2004, the tobacco industry lobby efforts effectively squashed proposals to raise the tax from 18 to 23 cents.
“Finally, in 2004, the legislature placed a state referendum question on the November 2004 election ballot for a 55 cent per pack net increase in the cigarette excise tax. The referendum passed, despite over $1.7 million spent by the industry funded vote-no campaign. Before the measure took effect, Oklahoma ranked 42nd in the nation with regard to the amount of its cigarette excise tax. After the referendum, it moved up to 15th in the nation.”
Fallin cites Pueblo, Colo. as an example of citizens receiving local control and implementing a tobacco ban in local taverns and restaurants.
“They saw a dramatic reduction in smoking and smoking-related illnesses,” Fallin said. “In fact, the city's heart attack rate dropped 30 percent."
House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R-Lawton) told KGOU the focus on regulation is misplaced, and should instead be on treating tobacco addiction.
“We have too many young people with access to nicotine, and too many people that are addicted to it,” Shannon said.
Givel says the focus is already on both, by regulating a highly addictive substance.
“Tobacco is as addictive, or even more addictive than heroin, for instance, and encouraging people that this is a good social practice, or good public health practice is, from the public health point of view, very unwise,” Givel said.
The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ranks Oklahoma 7th in the nation in its funding of programs to prevent youths from smoking, and to help smokers quit.
If a state question does make it to the ballot in November 2014, Givel says history shows it’s likely to pass with a 70 to 80 percent margin. But it also depends on how the campaign for and against the initiative plays out.
“You might want to watch for the industry and its allies to talk about adult choice, and freedom of choice,” Givel said. “You might want to watch for the health groups, obviously, to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke, and tobacco industry manipulation to get people to start smoking.”