Giving local communities a say on tobacco rules

When Pueblo, Colo., decided in 2003 to become smoke free inside all workplaces, the hope was that the move would help with the city’s poor health conditions. Pueblo was a community much like our own. Smoking rates were high. Heart attacks and other smoking-caused illnesses were costing residents millions in lost productivity and medical expenses.

The results were dramatic. Just 18 months later, heart attack hospitalizations declined by 41 percent. These rates continued to drop and Pueblo is now a healthier community largely because of that one simple change. And Pueblo isn’t alone. As of December 2010, more than 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas that have smoke-free workplace laws covering all restaurants and bars. Every major city in Texas is now smoke free.

Reducing smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke not only improves health, it improves business. Healthier workers translate to reduced medical costs, increased on-the-job productivity, reduced insurance costs and reduced absenteeism. In Oklahoma, medical costs and productivity losses due to smoking exceed an estimated $2.8 billion annually.

So why haven’t communities in Oklahoma taken action? In 1987 and 1994, tobacco lobbyists persuaded legislators to insert obscure clauses in Oklahoma statutes that removed local rights on tobacco issues. Subsequent efforts to restore those rights failed due to the lobbying clout and deep pockets of the tobacco industry. Currently, Oklahoma is one of only two states that prohibit communities from adopting any tobacco ordinance that’s stronger than state law.

It’s no wonder Oklahoma is ranked 46th among states in overall health status. Oklahoma’s smoking rates are among the nation’s highest — the No. 1 reason far too many of our citizens are dying prematurely of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

In 2011, we have a chance to correct past mistakes and move forward. House Speaker Kris Steele is sponsoring House Bill 2135 to restore the rights of Oklahoma communities to consider smoking ordinances. Consistent with national trends to return lawmaking power to elected officials closest to the people, restoring local rights does not assure cities will take any action at all. It merely allows them the opportunity to engage in local dialogue to determine the most appropriate measures to address the health of their communities.

Once again, tobacco lobbyists are pulling out all the stops to stall this important step toward improving the health of Oklahomans. Our citizens have the power to counter that influence — and legislators will generally listen when they hear from their constituents. That’s why it’s important for Oklahomans to contact their legislators quickly to voice their opinions.

HB 2135 is supported by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, The State Chamber, the Oklahoma Municipal League and dozens of other health, business and civic groups. It’s time to trust our communities to help determine our physical and economic health. It’s time to finally say no to tobacco lobbyists and yes to local rights.

Cox is director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.


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