Oklahoma’s improbable victory over big tobacco (Guest Post: Michael Givel and Andrew L. Spivak)

heartland tobacco warMichael Givel is Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. Andrew L. Spivak is Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas. This is an edited and abridged version of a brief written for the Scholars Strategy Network.

In 2003, tough new regulations to ensure smoke-free environments in workplaces and public locations were enacted by the Oklahoma legislature. This was a striking victory for public health and reformers advocating tobacco controls– a victory that no one would have predicted just a few years earlier. As we analyze in our new book Heartland Tobacco War, this is a story that shows how a principled public official can escape the constraints of business as usual and mobilize public pressure to support reforms.

For decades, tobacco industry insiders and lobbyists correctly saw their relationship with Oklahoma legislators as a “love fest.”  In 1985, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company announced in an internal analysis that, “no piece of smoking restriction legislation has ever been voted on by either house of the Oklahoma State Legislature,” and noted that, “groups interested in pursuing passage of smoking restrictions are either assuming a low profile or are virtually non-existent.” In 1986, the Legislature blocked local municipalities from enacting stronger clean indoor air laws and measures to prevent youth access to tobacco products. This “preemption” law ensured that all such efforts would be routed through the state legislature, where industry interests normally enjoyed overwhelming influence. Over the next fifteen years, the tobacco industry successfully parried public health initiatives in Oklahoma, ensuring the failure of significant efforts to restrict smoking in public locales and work places.

Inaction might well have continued but for the arrival in 2001 of an activist new Commissioner of Public Health.  Recruited from Florida and installed by Governor Frank Keating, Dr. Leslie Bietsch instituted “emergency” regulations and launched an aggressive public campaign for tobacco controls – getting out well in front of health advocacy groups and provoking ire from lobbyists and many legislators. Bietsch only lasted two years as Commissioner, but his battle against tobacco interests was a critical turning point.

Real change in clean indoor air regulation happened in Oklahoma in 2003, when an aggressive two-year public campaign culminated in Senate Joint Resolution 21, prohibiting smoking in all indoor workplaces as well as in public enclosed areas, except designated “smoking rooms” in restaurants with separate ventilation and negative air draft.

The road toward this achievement required leadership from Health Commissioner Bietsch and involved the use of unorthodox strategies to battle the tobacco industry. In January 2002, the new Commissioner immediately banned tobacco use at all health department buildings across the state. Next, he acted in tandem with the Oklahoma Health Commission to impose administrative rules that banned smoking in health care facilities, and promulgated a second set of rules that covered most public places. Most of the new rules were eventually approved by then-governor Frank Keating.

The opposition saw Bietsch’s boundary-breaking steps as overly aggressive and unconstitutional. Two businesses affiliated with the Oklahoma Restaurant Association – a lobbying partner of the tobacco industry – filed lawsuits against the Public Health Department and the Governor. In response, the American Lung Association filed suit against the business plaintiffs, the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, and the Public Health Department, alleging that allowing any smoking in restaurants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Both lawsuits eventually died, after the Oklahoma Restaurant Association publicly endorsed legislative steps that eventually evolved into Senate Joint Resolution 21. Ironically, opponents of tobacco regulations tried to make legislative proposals so stringent that they would be defeated. But the public attention that Dr. Beitsch’s campaign had brought to the issue led to the final enactment of an effective version of the resolution, bringing regulations for clean indoor air to a state that had previously been dominated by the tobacco industry.  This victory set the stage a year later for a public vote in favor of raising Oklahoma’s cigarette taxes to levels more on par with other states.

This remarkable heartland tobacco war shows that well-financed, sophisticated, and seemingly invincible political insiders who maintain an iron grip on policymaking can be overcome and defeated. But more than simply outside mobilization may be required. Bold public administrators can play a key role from the inside, working hand-in-glove with various bureaucratic agencies as well as with non-profit organizations and civic activists.  This kind of inside-outside alliance, in which forward-looking public administrators play a pivotal leading role, offers one possible formula for  reshaping regulations and laws in the future, even in states that appear most resistant to progressive change.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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