Board of health passes public smoking ban
Sweeping rules prohibiting smoking in most indoor public places in Oklahoma were unanimously approved Thursday by the state Board of Health, but the anti-tobacco measures still face major hurdles.
The rules will be reviewed by the Legislature and the governor, who questions whether the board has overstepped its statutory authority.
"I support reasonable efforts to reduce smoking in our society, and I recognize this is a public health issue," Gov. Frank Keating said.
Keating said he must determine "whether the Legislature is perhaps the proper body to consider this important issue."
On Thursday, the commissioner and health board members said they have the legal authority and the moral responsibility to keep non- smokers safe from cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke when indoors.
The rules ban smoking inside workplaces, restaurants, bars, sports arenas, malls and schools.
"For people who want to smoke, simply step outside. That's not an onerous burden," Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch said after hearing passionate arguments about both the dangers of second-hand smoke and assaults on free enterprise.
Restaurant owners took issue.
"In the future, you may dictate to us regulations governing obesity, ... and we won't be able to serve apple pie," said Bill Shapard, volunteer chairman of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.
If approved, the tobacco regulations go into effect July 1; fines for breaking the rules wouldn't take effect until Jan. 1.
"When you smoke, you impose an illness- and death- causing substance on me -- whether or not I choose it," Dr. Gordon Deckert said.
Under the rules passed Thursday, smoking also is prohibited within 15 feet of a building's main entrance.
"Our purpose has always been to protect the public health, and second-hand smoke is a public health issue. We believe all Oklahomans have the right not to be exposed to this toxic and hazardous substance," said board Chairman Dr. Ron Graves.
Peter Holloway, government affairs chairman for the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said, "Smoking is bad for you, but tobacco is not an illegal substance."
Holloway and other restaurateurs said changes in laws governing smoking should be addressed by the Legislature and governor -- not the board of health.
"You're going around the legislative process," said Holloway, who predicted Oklahoma soon would have "smoking by the wink," like liquor-by-the-drink violations in the past.
Oklahoma City restaurant operators Jim Cowan and Kim McLendon said the no-smoking rules cannot be enforced, and the regulations will destroy small businesses such as sports bars, which have a large drinking-and-smoking clientele.
"Our customers know what they're walking into," McLendon, president of Adair's Inc., said of smokers and non- smokers who frequent his eateries.
Cowan and McLendon urged education against smoking and tobacco products but not statewide smoking prohibitions.
But health board member Dr. Jay A. Gregory said he was "sick and tired" of 6,000 Oklahomans dying each year from heart and lung diseases caused by smoking, including 750 Oklahomans who perish annually from the effects of second-hand smoke.
According to a recent state Health Department study, 300,000 to 400,000 workers in Oklahoma are subject to work site exposure to second-hand smoke.
Exempted from the smoking prohibitions are private residences, except when used as day care centers, and retail tobacco stores.
Oklahoma hotels and motels can designate up to, but no more than, 25 percent of their rooms as smoking rooms "if properly ventilated so smoke is not recirculated to non-smoking areas."
Health care institutions, including hospitals, nursing homes and assisted-living centers, may have "smoking rooms" if the smoke "is directly exhausted to the outside under negative air pressure."
Under the rules, a fine of $100 is assessed against each violator, with a $100 additional fine for each violation.
Debra Bailey, chief financial officer for the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said Thursday the first duty of state eateries is "taking care of our customers ... as we know best." The association represents 1,600 members who oversee 4,500 restaurants.
A stringent anti-smoking policy "shoves free enterprise right out the window," she said.
Darla Akin with the American Lung Association of Oklahoma urged smokers and those who don't support tobacco restrictions to visit hospitals where children suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses and adults die from cancer and heart disease related to smoking.
Graves said the panel reviewed scientific research that found that places where smoking occurs cannot have a true smoke-free area because of shortcomings in standard building-ventilation systems.
Graves said the board's actions were not meant to penalize smokers.
"Most smokers understand that their right to smoke does not extend to imposing their smoke on others."