Smoking will not be allowed at the seven state-run veterans centers by the start of 2018, giving scores of cigarette-smoking vets a little more than four years to come to terms with the total ban.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order in February 2012 banning smoking at all state-owned properties, but veterans centers were not directly affected until Wednesday, when state officials announced a plan to ban smoking at the facilities over the next four years.
The delay is welcomed news for Johnnie Mitchell, a smoker and president of the Norman Veterans Center residents' council.
Mitchell said the phased-in ban revealed by state officials earlier in the week is a far cry from the total and immediate ban proposed by Fallin last year.
“I'm glad they changed the wording in the smoking (ban),” he said outside of the Norman Veterans Center on Thursday. “But in 2015, we'll deal with it when it gets here. And in 2018, we'll deal with that. We've dealt with it so far.”
Although anti-smoking measures are typically met with little resistance these days, some Oklahoma war veterans were critical of Fallin's executive order because they claim they were provided cigarettes while serving during armed conflicts.
The veterans also claimed that they represented a special case since they live on state property and served in the military.
Roughly 20 percent of the 1,400 veterans living at the state-run centers are smokers, according to information provided by the Oklahoma State Senate.
Like other veterans interviewed by The Oklahoman since Fallin announced the ban last year, Mitchell said it just doesn't feel right to be told by the state government that he can no longer smoke at his residence — especially when he was provided with cigarettes while he served in Vietnam.
Born in Oklahoma City, Mitchell was drafted into the Army when he was 18. He said the “year and 20 days” he spent in Vietnam in the mid-1960s “changed my life forever.”
Included in veterans' C-rations
The habit of cigarette-smoking — not to mention a horde of terrible memories — is one of the things he brought back from Vietnam.
“When we got our C-rations in Vietnam ... you get your food, a book of matches, a deal of toilet paper and a pack of cigarettes,” Mitchell said.
“Not everybody smoked ... but I'd say that 85 percent of the people did smoke. It kind of helped keep you calm. Helped keep you relaxed.”
When Fallin first announced the proposed ban in 2012, many veterans were angry at the prospect of losing their smoking.
A report from the Oklahoma State Senate, released Wednesday afternoon, detailed how the smoking ban will be implemented at the state's seven veterans centers.
Under the terms of the new smoking ban, veterans centers will phase out the privilege over the course of the next five years.
Indoor smoking areas will be gone by the start of 2015. After that, smoking will be allowed only in designated outdoor areas until Jan. 1, 2018, when the new ban takes effect.
In the meantime, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs will offer military veterans smoking cessation classes and other help they might need to quit.
Rep. Tommy Hardin said the new agreement is “workable” but that he still sympathizes with the veterans who will be put out because of the ban, even if smoking is a known health hazard.
“There is no perfect way to end tobacco use on state property, especially for those who years ago were given cigarettes in their C-rations,” said Hardin, R-Madill.
“This, I believe, is a workable compromise, since ... less than 18 percent of our veterans currently smoke.”
Regardless of how fair the compromise seems to politicians like Hardin, it doesn't change the fact that veterans who choose to smoke are being told they will no longer be able to do so at their residence when 2018 rolls around, Mitchell said.
“This is our home,” he said. “It never caused any problems before (Fallin) announced this ban. We don't smoke in the halls, we don't smoke by the doors. We try to be as neat as possible.”
Mitchell said veterans enjoy smoking after meals and in the morning while they drink coffee. He said some of his fellow smokers have been at it for decades.
“Some of these guys are 80, 85 years old,” Mitchell said.
“They're so old ... and that's all they have to give them a little enjoyment. How are you gonna take that away?”
When we got our C-rations in Vietnam ... you get your food, a book of matches, a deal of toilet paper and a pack of cigarettes. Not everybody smoked ... but I'd say that 85 percent of the people did smoke. It kind of helped keep you calm. Helped keep you relaxed.”
President of the Norman Veterans Center residents' council