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Narrow focus would give Oklahoma smoke-free effort best chance to succeed

Publication Date: 2012-02-01

The No. 1 legislative priority for Oklahoma Health Commissioner Terry Cline this year is to pass a law that gives municipalities more latitude in going smoke free. He's hoping for better luck than he had in 2011.

A bill carried by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, wound up getting scuttled over concerns that it could be detrimental to businesses. Cline says that was a canard promulgated by tobacco lobbyists and Tulsa-based retailer QuikTrip, but the original language left room for concern.

One section, for example, originally would have allowed municipalities to adopt laws “concerning the sale, purchase, distribution, advertising, sampling, promotion, display, possession, licensing or taxation of tobacco products.” As QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh saw it, that meant giving cities and towns the ability to restrict merchandising of tobacco products, raise or lower the smoking age, or even to institute an excise tax on smokes.

Such a checkerboard of regulations would be a burden for retailers such as QuikTrip, he argued. “A retailer trying to do the right thing will make mistakes,” he says.

The issue for Cline is that cities and towns in Oklahoma are prohibited from enacting tobacco-related rules that are stricter than state law. His aim is local control, and he cites places such as Texas, where its major cities have used local control to go smoke free and are benefiting from it.

Cline has a strong argument when he points out our state's poor health rankings related to tobacco use. Although the smoking rate has decreased in recent years, it is still well above the national average. Our high percentages of cardiovascular and cancer deaths would be reduced if fewer people smoked.

Steele says he is confident this hurdle can be cleared. In theory, the idea makes good sense. In practice, a narrower scope --allowing municipalities to tell residents where they can smoke --would appear to offer the best chance for smooth sailing.

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