Big tobacco companies have hired a slew of influential Oklahoma lobbyists this year to help the industry defeat legislation that would let cities regulate smoking.
There are at least 13 lobbyists for tobacco companies at the Capitol this year, up from nine at this time last year, according to the Ethics Commission.
In recent weeks, the lobbyists have ramped up efforts to secure votes against House Bill 2135, which would give cities the power to regulate smoking in public.
Dozens of health groups and business associations are lobbying in support of the bill, resulting in a lobbying frenzy leading up to today's expected vote on the bill in the full House.
Anti-smoking groups and health advocates and have long criticized the tobacco lobby for disregarding public health concerns in favor of profits by lobbying against potential restrictions on tobacco use.
“We need to put the health of our citizens before the interests of the tobacco industry,” said Connie Befort, chairman of the Smoke Free Oklahoma Coalition, which supports the bill.
Legislators reported aggressive lobbying in recent days by groups on both sides of the issue.
“Whenever there is an aggressive piece of legislation in an area dealing with tobacco, you always see an increase in lobbyists at the Capitol in that arena,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs.
The main result of HB 2135 if it becomes law would be potential citywide smoking bans in bars and nightclubs, where smoking is allowed now.
Cities cannot pass smoking laws stricter than the state's because of tobacco regulation pre-emption laws.
The tobacco industry instigated legislation in the late 1980s that led to Oklahoma's pre-emption laws when Tulsa tried to pass restrictions on public smoking, according to internal tobacco industry documents made public as part of the tobacco industry lawsuit settlement in the 1990s.
HB 2135, by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, would repeal the pre-emption laws.
It passed a House committee last month amid some opposition.
The vote in the full House will be close because members of both parties are divided on the issue, which often leads to deals being cut with those who are undecided and could cast deciding votes on a measure, several legislators said Tuesday.
Spokesmen for tobacco companies did not return messages Tuesday seeking comment about their lobbying activities. Lobbyists the companies have hired said they are required to direct media inquiries to tobacco company spokesmen.
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