Oklahoma pushes to boost taxes on tribal tobacco sales

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's staff is negotiating with tribes over new tobacco compacts in an effort to make tobacco taxes more consistent in the state.
BY CLIFTON ADCOCK - Oklahoma Watch Published: July 5, 2013
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“Our main focus is to keep the market competitive for tribal smoke shops,” said Sara Hill, assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation. “The object is not to provide cheaper-priced cigarettes to anyone.”

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger attributed the state’s push for higher tobacco tax rates partly to years of opposition from nontribal retailers.

“We’ve certainly enjoyed some years where we had a definite advantage,” Tiger said. “Now that gap is closing and I have to think it’s because of some of the bigger corporations who sell cigarettes and, of course, some of the retail associations in Oklahoma.”

Tobacco sales at some shops have declined in recent years.

Whether higher taxes at smoke shops will lead to less smoking among tribal members remains to be seen. But health experts credit higher taxes for helping decrease smoking nationally.

Studies show Oklahoma has one of the highest tobacco use rates in the nation. Smoking is especially high among American Indians, although it’s been declining.

A report released last year by the U.S. surgeon general found that Oklahoma had the seventh-highest smoking rate in the nation from 2006 to 2010 among children aged 12 to 17 and adults aged 18 to 25. Among adults 26 and over, Oklahoma has the fourth-highest rate. Close to half of American Indian adolescents and young adults in the nation smoke, the report said.

The state Health Department reported that in 2011, American Indian adults had the highest smoking rates of all ethnic groups, about 34 percent. They also had the highest rates of lung cancer, with 605 new cases per 100,000 population in 2009.

Raising tobacco tax rates is one of the surest ways to decrease commercial tobacco use, said Sally Carter, tribal liaison for the Health Department.

“It’s really considered a gold-standard in tobacco prevention,” Carter said.

Tribes have taken some steps to lower smoking rates among members.

In recent years, the Cherokee Nation, which has licensed vendors who sell tobacco, has banned smoking on much of its tribal property, said Randy Gibson, program liaison for the tribe’s Healthy Nation initiative. It also has banned “third-hand smoke,” such as smoke odor on clothing, from its child-care program.

The tribe’s anti-smoking efforts have paid off, Gibson said. Health officials have seen a drop in lung cancer rates among tribal members over the past three years.

Still, “a lot more needs to be done because the rate for native versus non-native is still very high,” he said.

Carter said the Health Department has partnered with numerous tribes to help prevent or stop smoking, using media campaigns and referrals from doctors to a tobacco helpline (800) QUIT-NOW, which is available to all state residents.

While ceremonial use of tobacco is an important tradition for a number of tribes in the state, tribal and state health officials say there is a distinction between ceremonial use and addiction to “commercial” tobacco.