Many tobacco-using veterans living at state-run centers fear an executive order issued by the governor could force them to move if they don't give up their habit.
Gov. Mary Fallin's order, signed Feb. 6, declares “the use of any tobacco product shall be prohibited on any and all properties owned, leased or contracted for use by the State of Oklahoma.”
The order, which will officially take effect Aug. 6, also bans the use of tobacco products in state-owned vehicles.
Belinda White, a Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman, told The Oklahoman on Tuesday that it isn't clear how exactly the agency will enforce the order, which is akin to state law.
White said roughly 20 percent of the 1,376 veterans living at state-run centers are tobacco users.
“We are in the beginning processes of developing procedures for implementation of the executive order,” she said in a statement. “We have not addressed the noncompliance issue, but do not see discharge as a method for compliance.”
White said the department is “fighting” the order, mainly because smoking or using other forms of tobacco gives nearly 300 of the Oklahoma veterans something to do.
“Our agency feels bad for them,” she said. “That's about all they have to do at some of these places ... even though it is bad for them.
“But in their situation, many of them, they were supplied with them while they were in the service, so it seems a little unfair.”
Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the order, which lacks an enforcement mechanism, doesn't necessarily mean veterans will have to move out if they don't want to quit using tobacco products.
“The order simply prohibits tobacco use on state property,” Weintz said. “Individual agencies can choose how to enforce that ban. The intent of the ban is for it to be largely self-enforcing.”
Some would move out
Douglas Baker lives at the Sulphur veterans center, one of seven state-run facilities in Oklahoma.
Baker, 64, says he's ready to “escape out here” if tobacco use is banned at the center.
He said the military often provided cigarettes to troops in their rations and that tobacco products were made readily available while he served.
“Just about all of us smoked ... nearly 100 percent, I'd say,” he said. “And I've enjoyed every moment I've smoked ... I have no plans to quit.”
Baker said he and another veteran living at the center have already discussed an “escape plan” with their social worker.
“We're going to Norman, to a little two-
The Sulphur veterans center is relatively new and exists in one of the state's most scenic regions. It's also “a last stop-type of place for many of these guys,” said Nancy Gallup, the center's administrator.
Gallup said 44 of the 122 veterans at the center are tobacco users.
“We're hoping for a reprieve,” she said. “When they get to our facility, this may be the last place they live. I know it's not good for them, even those who shouldn't be smoking or doing whatever, but I'm still against it. They should get to do what they want after serving our country.”
Gallup said a notice was recently sent to residents of the center in Sulphur, alerting them to the upcoming policy changes described in Fallin's executive order.
“They were never told they would have to leave,” she said.
Willie White said he'd move from the Sulphur center, as well, although he didn't share his specific exit strategy.
“I like living here, but I'd guess we'd just have to move,” he said. “I thought I'd die here, but I won't stay if I had to quit. I feel like they're trying to take away my rights after I served my country, and I don't think that's right.”
Reasons for order
Weintz said the governor's motivation for issuing the executive order wasn't to displace hundreds of veterans.
He said tobacco use is the leading cause of premature death in Oklahoma, costing the state huge chunks of money each year.
“It is one of the leading factors in driving up the cost of health insurance and medical care, which hurts families and the economy,” Weintz said.
Weintz said the money would be better used on schools, public safety or infrastructure improvements instead of treating “entirely preventable illnesses related to smoking.”
“Banning tobacco use on state property represents an inconvenience to smokers,” he said.
“That inconvenience, however, is small compared with the thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars that could be saved if fewer Oklahomans chose to smoke or use tobacco products.”
But for 69-year-old Paul Kepley, the governor's motivations don't mean much.
Kepley, who also lives at the Sulphur center, said he's not interested in looking out for his long-term health, at least not at this point in his life.
“I started smoking when I was young, and I've tried to quit many times over the years ... it's one of the hardest things you can do,” Kepley said. “So, I think it's nice for us to be able to go into our little smoking room or smoking area and be left alone.
“I don't think that's too much to ask for.”