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Local & Regional

Senate Committee Kills Local Control of Tobacco Regulations

KWGS News File Photo

Governor Fallin won’t get her wish, expressed in her State of the State address, for return of local control over tobacco regulations.

A bill that would have allowed local governments’ ordinances to override the state law failed in the Senate General Government Committee earlier today.

The bill would have meant that cities could enact regulations that were either more or less stringent than the state’s law.

During the standing-room-only committee meeting, Oklahoma State Health Department Commissioner Terry Cline testified in favor of the bill.

“This bill presents a great opportunity for local communities to protect the health of their residents,” Cline said.

“This is the only area of law that actually acts as a ceiling that prohibits communities from enacting ordinances that are tougher than the state ordinance,” he added.

He called tobacco use the “number-one preventable cause of death.”

He framed the bill as an issue of local decision-making.

“Often I hear in this building, that we don’t like decisions made at the federal level. We want those decisions made closer to home,” he said. “I hear that repeatedly.”

During questioning and debate, Republican Senator Rob Johnson drew a parallel between other dangerous and regulated substances, like alcohol. He made the argument that local governments don’t have the power to make their own regulations concerning those health risks.

In Oklahoma, county governments have a limited ability to influence the sale of alcohol by the glass.

“Tobacco is the only known product that is legally on the market that when used as prescribed is harmful to your health,” Cline said. “That’s not true for alcohol, it’s not true for the appropriate use of guns.”

“The science is very, very clear,” Cline said.

Business owners testified against the bill. Jim Shumsky, owner of Junior’s Supper Club in Oklahoma City detailed the costs of the ventilation system he has in his establishment, installed once the legislature, in 2006, required separately ventilated smoking rooms, if a business chooses to allow smoking.

“It appears to me and a lot of other people that they’re trying to renege on the promise they made,” Shumsky said of the legislature, “and I’m left out there with 200-plus thousand dollars.”

Ed Lynn, who operates several Buffalo Wild Wings franchises in the Oklahoma City area, also testified.

“On Northwest Expressway, our store is located about a mile from Warr Acres, and I’m really concerned about the competitive disadvantage I’d be on,” he said, “if Warr Acres were to allow smoking and Oklahoma City would not.”

He said the difference in regulations between cities could hurt business for those subject to harsher tobacco regulations, since smoking clientele could easily go elsewhere.

In his explanation of the bill, its author, Republican Senator Frank Simpson, expressed confidence that “the leaders of our local communities are wise enough to be business-friendly and allow that business to phase that smoking room out with … no or very little economic impact on them.”

Senator Johnson was one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill, citing its potential to hurt business.

“I would actually support a state-wide ban before I would support this,” he said.

Another opponent, Republican Senator Cliff Aldridge, stressed that, “We’re not against local control.”

“However, there’s some things that you just can’t do that on,” he said, again drawing a parallel to alcohol laws.

“I would hate to see a lot of our restaurants and businesses say, ‘You know what, we spent a ton of money complying with the state law, and all of the sudden it was yanked back on us,’” he said.

“I’m completely against backing out on a promise that we’ve made to a lot of businesses,” he said, “and changing the ball game halfway through.”

He stressed personal responsibility in the choice to smoke, or to visit a business that allows smoking.

Before the vote, Senator Simpson compared the state-wide tobacco laws to the federal legislation of the Affordable Care Act.

“We’ve been haranguing and moaning and groaning about Obamacare and the mandates that are being placed upon us at the state level,” he said, “but yet we don’t hesitate to mandate our local communities exactly what they do, and don’t allow them the same decisions for their community that we want to make at the state level when it comes to the health of our citizens.”

The committee ultimately voted down the bill.

Governor Fallin announced, via Twitter, that tomorrow, she will introduce “new plans to fight second-hand smoke and improve health in Oklahoma.”