Big Tobacco-Backed Lawmakers Take Down Oklahoma’s Anti-Smoking Bill

An Oklahoma state Senate committee rejected a measure that “would have repealed a 1987 law that prevents cities and towns from enacting tobacco use restrictions stricter than that of the state” by a 2-6 vote on Monday — drawing sharp rebukes from public health advocates who see the legislation’s failure as a political concession to Big Tobacco, and even drawing the ire of the state’s GOP Gov. Mary Fallin, who has called on lawmakers to pass legislation aimed at curbing Oklahoma’s smoking-related public health care costs.

“This is a victory for tobacco lobbyists and the tobacco industry,” said Alex Weintz, Fallin’s communications director. “It’s a defeat for the state of Oklahoma and anyone who cares about improving our health.”

As OKNews reports, the debate over SB 36 revealed a clear correlation between the state senators’ votes and the amount of money they received from the tobacco lobby:

The debate on the measure turned into a showdown between Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, the only senator to sign a pledge to refuse all contributions, meals and gifts from the tobacco industry, and Sen. Rob Johnson, who is listed as the No. 1 recipient on a website that tracks legislators receiving money from tobacco lobbyists.

Johnson, R-Yukon, received about $11,295 in campaign contributions and gifts from those who were identified as tobacco lobbyists since 2006, according to the website, which was started last year by Doug Matheny, the former director of tobacco prevention at the state Health Department. […]

“From the tobacco companies themselves, I don’t think I’ve received that much comparatively to other interests,” he said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with it. I’ve taken max contributions from somebody and completely have been opposed to an idea they’ve had.”

Johnson and his fellow reform opponents implied that SB 36 would be a burden on businesses, since it would discourage Oklahoma residents from patronizing establishments that don’t allow smoking. But that logic completely ignores the very real — and very significant — costs of the state’s smoking epidemic. National smoking-related medical costs amount to $200 billion in preventable spending every year, and studies have confirmed that states making small investments in smoking cessation policies see massive economic returns. In Oklahoma specifically, where about 5,800 people die each year from smoking, every household pays an estimated $556 annually in state and federal taxes to cover smoking-caused medical costs.

Ultimately, the measure’s defeat is a reminder of the outsized influence that Big Tobacco continues to enjoy. Fallin has vowed to continue her fight to encourage anti-smoking efforts in Oklahoma, and will potentially call for a popular referendum on SB 36 — but if she does, the people of Oklahoma can expect a titanic statewide lobbying campaign by the tobacco industry.