Matheny: It's a shame that lobbyists dictate health policy
BY DOUG MATHENY
Friday, February 22, 2013
2/22/13 at 3:33 AM
Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday announced support for an initiative petition for a statewide ballot measure that will give Oklahoma voters a choice. Should tobacco lobbyists at the State Capitol determine public policy or should Oklahoma workers and patrons gain the benefits of smoke-free air inside all public places?
How did it come to this? Tobacco industry documents tell the story. In 1986 and early 1987, the cities of Edmond and Tulsa were considering local ordinances to reduce public exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco companies knew smoking restrictions reduce cigarette sales. When tobacco lobbyists saw they had little credibility at city halls, they quickly used their "leadership" at the Capitol to strip all local rights on this issue.
Tobacco lobbyists in Oklahoma guide disbursements from two tobacco company political action committees (PACs). In addition, tobacco companies have overpaid lobbyists to enable them to make substantial campaign contributions in their own names. The website tobaccomoney.com provides searchable databases of Oklahoma Ethics Commission campaign and lobbyists' reports. These data show that since 2006, tobacco lobbyists in Oklahoma have distributed $229,871 in contributions, meals and gifts to legislators now in office. In addition, various statewide election committees - important to legislative leaders - have received $54,575.
And it may be getting worse. Contributions to Oklahoma state legislative campaigns from the Reynolds American Inc. PAC increased by 70 percent in the last election cycle. This included $3,000 to House Speaker T.W. Shannon and $2,000 to Senate President Pro-Tem Brian Bingman. Meals purchased by lobbyists on behalf of Reynolds American, Inc. increased by more than 50 percent in the last election cycle.
Money doesn't always buy favor. However, even if no decisions were ever influenced, lawmakers should refuse anything of value from tobacco lobbyists as a matter of principle. Tobacco lobbyists serve as official representatives of an industry that is profoundly unlike any other. No other business survives by addicting young people to deadly products. Most registered tobacco lobbyists in Oklahoma take direct orders from companies recently convicted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Smoking is Oklahoma's top cause of preventable death, killing an estimated 6,000 Oklahomans and costing Oklahomans over $2.7 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity each year. For every person who dies from smoking, another 20 are suffering with at least one serious smoking-caused disease.
Exposure to secondhand smoke significantly increases the risk of heart disease, cancers, asthma attacks, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Two-thirds of adult smokers want to quit and have tried many times. Oklahoma's smoking rate ranks 47th highest in the nation.
Smoke-free policies protect nonsmokers, support smokers who are trying to quit, and discourage youth smoking initiation. Half of all states and more than 550 U.S. cities - including Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Lincoln, Topeka, Kansas City, Jefferson City, and Springfield - have adopted laws or ordinances to become completely smoke-free inside all public places. These are popular, business-friendly measures.
Valiant efforts to restore local rights in Oklahoma have been consistently met with stiff resistance from state lawmakers aligned with the tobacco lobby. Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, who formally objected to a procedural move to keep Senate Bill 36 alive and led debate against the measure in the General Government Committee, is Oklahoma's top recipient of campaign contributions and gifts from tobacco lobbyists. Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, refused to hear local rights legislation in both 2012 and 2013. He received two contributions to his 2012 campaign from a tobacco company PAC.
In 2012, four of the five state representatives who made formal motions to weaken or delay local rights legislation had received at least one campaign contribution from a tobacco company PAC. The fifth subsequently received two campaign contributions from tobacco company PACs.
It's a shame a statewide vote is needed. But that's apparently the case.
Original Print Headline: It's a shame that lobbyists dictate health policy
Doug Matheny created the website tobaccomoney.com. He is the former director of tobacco prevention at the Oklahoma Department of Health.
Doug Matheny: Tobacco lobbyists in Oklahoma have distributed $229,871 in contributions, meals and gifts to legislators