In a victory for the tobacco industry, an Oklahoma Senate committee snuffed out a bill Monday that would have let cities and towns craft their own anti-smoking laws.
The 6-2 vote not to pass Senate Bill 36 ensures the proposal is dead for the next two years, or the length of the 54th legislative session, said Sen. Greg Treat, chairman of the Senate General Government Committee.
Proponents said cities and towns should have the right to pass their own anti-smoking laws.
The measure would have repealed a 1987 law that prevents cities and towns from enacting tobacco use restrictions stricter than that of the state.
State law bans smoking in most public buildings.
It is allowed in bars and in separately ventilated rooms in restaurants.
Opponents said the bill would have been unfair to businesses that built these special rooms and that they should not be penalized for playing by the rules.
Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, offered an amendment in committee to grandfather those restaurants in, but it failed 6-2.
Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said cities still could seek legislation that would allow them to ban smoking on municipal property.
The state attorney general’s office ruled earlier this month that cities cannot ban smoking in outdoor areas that they own or operate.
Criticism of vote
Gov. Mary Fallin in her State of the State speech this month to lawmakers urged them to pass legislation restoring local control to cities and towns regarding tobacco use in public places.
A similar measure failed last year when a Senate committee chairman refused to grant the measure a hearing after it passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“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.”
Fallin has scheduled a news conference Tuesday with community leaders and medical professionals to announce a plan to reduce smoking-related deaths and illnesses, and to combat the dangers of secondhand smoke in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City Mayor Cornett, who will be among those meeting Tuesday with the governor, raised the possibility of asking state voters to change the law.
“We’re disappointed,” Cornett said.
“I think we expected more out of the Legislature, and I think it’s another victory for big tobacco.”
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 tobaccomoney.com, which was started last year by Doug Matheny, the former director of tobacco prevention at the state Health Department.
Johnson said after the meeting he doesn’t keep track of money he receives from lobbyists and special interest groups and that it had no bearing on his opposition to the bill. He said the website listed money from contract lobbyists whose clients include a tobacco company.
“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 said most employees who work at restaurants and bars that allow smoking know the risks, he said.
“There are tons of job that they could go to,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows it is not good for you.”
Sarah Smith, a bartender at the Red Rooster Bar & Grill in Oklahoma City, said smoke is just part of her job.
“I know that it does stop some people from coming in because of how smoky it does get in here, but I was a patron before I was a server, so I guess I was just used to it,” said Stone, a bartender for about three years.
Requiring bars to go smoke-free would have hurt business, she said. The Red Rooster relies on its regulars, who might not come in if the bar were smoke-free.
“A lot of them enjoy being able to sit here and have their beer and cigarette or cigar,” Stone said.
Jim Shumsky, owner of Junior’s Supper Club in Oklahoma City, said that after the 2003 law required Oklahoma restaurants to either go smoke-free or provide smoking rooms, he fully enclosed his bar and created a smoke-free atmosphere. It cost about $200,000, and the restaurant spends as much as $10,000 a year changing the filter system.
“Basically we did the right thing,” he said. The bill, if passed, would appear to him that the Legislature was “trying to renig on the promise they made.”
Contributing: Staff Writers William Crum and Jaclyn Cosgrove