Local control over tobacco use still an elusive goal
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, March 18, 2012
3/18/12 at 6:46 AM
Will this legislative session be another "love fest" between Oklahoma lawmakers and the tobacco industry?
That's how an industry representative described lawmaker-lobbyist relations years ago, when Big Tobacco usually got its way at the Capitol, and that's the kind of coziness the industry is hoping to rekindle this session.
Twenty-five years after Tulsa health leaders launched the movement seeking local controls on tobacco use, health advocates are still fighting for that right. A legislative measure that would allow local control is alive, but badly bruised. Big Tobacco will not go down easy.
As one industry leader put it back in 1990: "We intend to resist, at all costs, any attempt by anti-tobacco forces to repeal the state's pre-emption of local smoking regulation." The industry's presence at the Capitol this session suggests its stance hasn't changed.
But attitudes have changed some, so there's some hope that Oklahoma will join the ranks of the other 48 states that allow local control of tobacco use.
So the question is: Who will win this time? Big Tobacco - again? Or, finally, the people of Oklahoma?
There's reason to think most Oklahomans wouldn't have a problem with local control. Experience in other cities that have local control shows smoke-free status helps attract conventions and tourists without harming restaurants and other businesses. Recent polling here shows that substantial majorities of Oklahomans want a smoke-free environment and believe nonsmokers' rights to breathe clean air are more important than the rights of smokers to smoke.
Then, as now
But even if most of us do prefer clean air everywhere, we won't necessarily get our way. Big Tobacco has been fighting local control measures ever since Tulsa health and business leaders began the push in the mid-1980s. They hoped a far-reaching bill introduced in 1987 would lead to local control - a right that already had been won by local leaders all across the country.
But when tobacco-industry leaders got wind of the Tulsa effort, they flew into action and managed to not only greatly weaken the measure, but to add a provision that prohibited stricter local controls - what's now commonly known as pre-emption.
The tobacco-control battles of this era are detailed in a fascinating study on the power and influence of the industry called, "From Industry Dominance to Legislative Progress, The Political and Public Health Struggle of Tobacco Control In Oklahoma."
The 2005 report, by Andrew L. Spivak and Michael S. Givel, with the University of Oklahoma's Department of Political Science, concluded: "The tobacco industry is a major political force in Oklahoma through lobbying, direct campaign contributions, indirect contributions to the two major political parties and legislative political caucuses, and gifts and entertainment events. The tobacco industry has a centralized political organization in Oklahoma that promotes and defends its political and market interests at the local and state levels of government. Although the tobacco industry has operated in the open in some political campaigns, it has often operated quietly behind the scenes, frequently working with various allied organizations on state and local political campaigns... ."
In the years after their major victory in 1987, representatives continued to bask in their success but remained vigilant, the OU analysis shows.
A 1989 Philip Morris document crowed about the industry's success in Oklahoma. "Again, a love fest," said the summary, referring to lawmaker-lobbyist relations. "They are all best friends."
The same document described Oklahoma's lobbying team, all former lawmakers, as "absolutely superb" and "able to hold leadership" to doing their bidding.
A 1992 Tobacco Institute memo noted: "Industry success in Oklahoma illustrates the benefits of a coordinated and well-planned effort."
By the mid-1990s, health advocates had learned some lessons and a new push to repeal pre-emption was launched. Municipal support was growing; by this time, seven cities had adopted resolutions asking the Legislature to let them impose their own tobacco restrictions. By 1996, a "revolutionary" bill that would have restored local control was in the Legislature, backed by impressive legislative support: A total of 44 House members and 14 senators signed on as co-authors. Even then-Gov. Frank Keating said he would sign the bill if it passed.
This political scenario alarmed the tobacco industry, which fought back mightily. Scare tactics that led businesses to believe dire consequences would result from local control led to a mobilization effort that doomed the repeal measure.
Interestingly, while local control has remained an elusive goal, progress on other tobacco-control measures has inched along in recent years. Significant controls of tobacco use in public places and workplaces have been adopted, and a major tobacco-tax increase was approved by voters in 2004.
Why not local?
Why should the tobacco industry care if it's the cities or the state regulating its products?
Previously secret internal documents "shed light on why tobacco lobbyists wanted to take away local rights," notes Tobacco Stops With Me, a partnership of Oklahoma organizations seeking to resolve tobacco-related issues.
"The documents show that they knew they (tobacco leaders) faced a credibility gap when it came to influencing local decisions. At the local level, policymakers are closer to the people. As a result, they tend to be more responsive to the concerns of constituents and are much less likely to be influenced by tobacco industry lobbyists and their campaign contributions," the coalition concluded.
See for yourself. Here are some of the documents Tobacco Stops With Me has posted:
"Our record in defeating state smoking restrictions has been reasonably good. Unfortunately, our record with respect to local measures...has been somewhat less encouraging." - Raymond Pritchard, Brown and Williamson, US Tobacco & Candy Journal, July 17, 1986.
"But above all, we intend to resist, at all costs, any attempt by anti-tobacco forces to repeal the state's preemption of local smoking regulation." - Memorandum from Stan Bowman, Tobacco Institute, regarding "Oklahoma 1991 Legislative program," Nov. 18, 1990.
"We could never win at the local level ... So the Tobacco Institute and tobacco companies' first priority has always been to preempt the field..." - Victor L. Crawford, former Tobacco Institute lobbyist, Journal of the American Medical Association, July 19, 1995.
It's abundantly clear that the tobacco industry doesn't want to deal with us locally, which should make us want that right all the more. If pre-emption is repealed, cities don't have to enact tougher laws. But if local residents want tougher controls, it would be possible. Why in the world wouldn't we want that right?
Original Print Headline: Local Issue
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
A discarded cigarette lies on the ground on the campus of the University of Tulsa. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World file