Tobacco lobbyists step up work in Oklahoma Legislature

Legislation that would let cities regulate smoking in public has prompted the tobacco industry to hire more lobbyists in Oklahoma in its effort to defeat the legislation.

Big tobacco companies have hired a slew of influential Oklahoma lobbyists this year to help the industry defeat legislation that would let cities regulate smoking.

There are at least 13 lobbyists for tobacco companies at the Capitol this year, up from nine at this time last year, according to the Ethics Commission.

In recent weeks, the lobbyists have ramped up efforts to secure votes against House Bill 2135, which would give cities the power to regulate smoking in public.

Dozens of health groups and business associations are lobbying in support of the bill, resulting in a lobbying frenzy leading up to today’s expected vote on the bill in the full House.

Anti-smoking groups and health advocates and have long criticized the tobacco lobby for disregarding public health concerns in favor of profits by lobbying against potential restrictions on tobacco use.

“We need to put the health of our citizens before the interests of the tobacco industry,” said Connie Befort, chairman of the Smoke Free Oklahoma Coalition, which supports the bill.

Legislators reported aggressive lobbying in recent days by groups on both sides of the issue.

“Whenever there is an aggressive piece of legislation in an area dealing with tobacco, you always see an increase in lobbyists at the Capitol in that arena,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs.

The main result of HB 2135 if it becomes law would be potential citywide smoking bans in bars and nightclubs, where smoking is allowed now.

Cities cannot pass smoking laws stricter than the state’s because of tobacco regulation pre-emption laws.

The tobacco industry instigated legislation in the late 1980s that led to Oklahoma’s pre-emption laws when Tulsa tried to pass restrictions on public smoking, according to internal tobacco industry documents made public as part of the tobacco industry lawsuit settlement in the 1990s.

HB 2135, by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, would repeal the pre-emption laws.

It passed a House committee last month amid some opposition.

The vote in the full House will be close because members of both parties are divided on the issue, which often leads to deals being cut with those who are undecided and could cast deciding votes on a measure, several legislators said Tuesday.

Spokesmen for tobacco companies did not return messages Tuesday seeking comment about their lobbying activities. Lobbyists the companies have hired said they are required to direct media inquiries to tobacco company spokesmen.

“Constituents across the state want local rights restored to their communities,” American Cancer Society spokeswoman Sara Smith said in a news release. “We would like to see tobacco influence diminished and the health of Oklahomans improved.”

Familiar faces

Most of the lobbyists the tobacco industry has retained in Oklahoma this year are among the most active and influential at the Capitol, where they have unfettered access to most legislators after years of working with them and supporting their campaigns.

Since 2002, the lobbyists working for tobacco companies this year have given at least $438,000 in campaign donations to candidates for state political offices, according to Ethics Commission records.

They also have paid for hundreds of meals and gifts for legislators in recent years, sometimes on behalf of tobacco clients, records show.

While the spending is not all directly related to tobacco, it shows the level of involvement tobacco lobbyists have in the state’s political apparatus, whether on behalf of a tobacco client or another.

Among the tobacco lobbyists this year are prominent contract lobbyists Dianne Rasmussen, Bobby Stem, Benny Vanatta and Chad Alexander, as well as longtime tobacco lobbyist Brian Nance, whose father lobbied on behalf of tobacco companies in favor of the pre-emption law in the 1980s.

When the Legislature last considered major smoking legislation in 2003, legislators could accept campaign donations during the legislative session. That practice has since been restricted.

“You’re seeing a much fairer fight on the issues when the donations are not involved,” said Dorman, who was a freshman representative in 2003.

Familiar playbook

The 2003 legislation created the law requiring restaurants to have separately ventilated smoking rooms to allow smoking. It was authored by former Rep. Ray Vaughn, who is now an Oklahoma County commissioner. Vaughn said the tobacco industry lobbied strongly against his bill.

“The tobacco industry didn’t have a good reputation, but they were very adept at bringing in allied associations,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn, a Republican, said tobacco lobbyists in 2003 recruited restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses where tobacco products are used or sold to lobby against the bill on the tobacco industry’s behalf.

“It made it very difficult to get anything going,” he said.

Vaughn, who is part of a coalition supporting HB 2135, said it appears the tobacco industry is using the same tactics this year.


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