By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma Senate panel snuffed out efforts Monday to allow cities to enact stricter smoking bans, despite strong support from the governor and state health officials.
The Senate General Government Committee voted 6-2 against the proposal that was endorsed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin in her State of the State address. The legislation would have allowed local governments to adopt stricter smoking ordinances than state law. Currently, municipalities are prohibited from having more restrictive smoking policies.
“This is a victory for tobacco lobbyists and the tobacco industry,” Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said in a statement. “It’s a defeat for the state of Oklahoma and anyone who cares about improving our health. Moving forward, Gov. Fallin will be pursuing alternative measures aimed at reducing deaths and illnesses caused by smoking and second hand smoke.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, said legislation was about local control. But opponents argued it was unfair to businesses that had spent tens of thousands of dollars complying with current state law that allows, for example, separately ventilated smoking rooms in restaurants.
“I wish nobody would smoke. Everybody knows it’s not good for you,” said Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher. “But this is not about local control. This is about taking away the rights of businesses.”
According to a website that tracks political contributions from tobacco-related groups and lobbyists, Johnson has received more than $10,000 in campaign contributions from such interests since 2004, the most of any state lawmaker. But Johnson said those contributions have “absolutely nothing to do with” his opposition to the bill, and that many of those donations came from contract lobbyists who represent multiple clients.
Each member of the committee, with the exception of freshman Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Tulsa, has received at least $250 in contributions from tobacco-related interests, according to the website. Dahm was among those who opposed the bill.
Under current Oklahoma law, smoking is not allowed in most indoor public places, but some exceptions include private offices, bars and restaurants with separately ventilated smoking rooms. Cities and towns also are prohibited from enacting stricter smoking bans than those already in state law, and according to an attorney general’s opinion released earlier this month, cities cannot ban smoking even in city-owned outdoor parks and recreational areas.
Among those who testified against the bill was Jim Shumsky, the owner of Jim’s Supper Club, who said he spent $200,000 to build a separate ventilation system for a smoking room inside his Oklahoma City restaurant.
“It seems to me they’re trying to renege on the promise they made,” Shumsky said.
Oklahoma Secretary of Health Dr. Terry Cline, who spoke in favor of the measure, said tobacco-related illnesses kill about 6,000 Oklahomans every year.
“It’s actually killing more people than all the automobile accidents, all the homicides, all the suicides, all the drug overdoses combined,” Cline said. “That’s science. That’s fact. It’s not debatable.”
While Oklahoma has seen a slow decline in tobacco use over the last decade, more than 26 percent of Oklahoma adults smoke, which is the third highest in the nation, Cline said.
An amendment to the bill that would have allowed a grandfather clause for those restaurants that had built separate smoking rooms also was defeated.
Although the bill was killed and no similar legislation remains alive in the House, Cline refused to say the issue of returning local control to communities over smoking was over for the session.
“It can’t be over. There are too many people dying. There is too much at stake,” Cline said after the hearing. “It would really be like turning your back on people who you know are condemned to death, and you could do something about that, so of course it’s not over.”
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