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Tobacco-using vets fear they could be asked to leave state-owned centers

Even though the federal government supplied them with cigarettes and made them readily available while in combat, hundreds of veterans living in state-owned centers could be told to leave in August if they continue to use tobacco products.
by Andrew Knittle Published: April 4, 2012

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-bedroom apartment,” he said. “I don't have to stay here ... although I do enjoy living here.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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