State agencies launch anti-smoking campaign
Smoking remains "a dark cloud hanging above us" that makes Oklahoma "an unhealthy place to live," the state Health Department Commissioner declared Monday in announcing a campaign to make cigarettes harder to buy and smoke-free places easier to find.
"Oklahoma can no longer continue a course of inaction when it comes to addressing tobacco addiction, which is our single most preventable cause of death," said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, surrounded by supporters and anti-tobacco activists during separate news conferences in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
A coalition of state agencies and private organizations is backing Beitsch in recommending a $1 per pack increase in the state excise tax on cigarettes, increasing the average cost per pack to about $4.
To reduce tobacco sales to minors, the Alcoholic Beverage Law Enforcement Commission is requesting 17 additional agents to regulate 5,500 retail outlets in Oklahoma that sell cigarettes.
Penalties, including temporary license suspension, would be mandatory for owners and managers of retail outlets that repeatedly sell tobacco to minors.
Because of second-hand smoke dangers, the coalition also wants more smoke-free public places.
Another proposal would force a change in Oklahoma tobacco laws to allow cities and towns to enact stronger tobacco-control ordinances than state law allows.
Already, the Tulsa Consortium on Health and Tobacco has recommended the city enact measures eliminating smoking in all public places and work environments within Tulsa and Tulsa County.
"The 80 percent of men, women and children who don't smoke should be free to go where they wish without having to endure the deadly habit of smoking," said Richard L. Barnes, a member of the Tulsa anti-smoking group.
Beitsch announced Monday that he will request from the Legislature an additional $31 million for the state Health Department to start anti-smoking education and cessation programs.
A coordinated anti-smoking drive is long overdue, the commissioner said.
"Each day, 40 more of our young people under the age of 18 become addicted to tobacco. Too many Oklahomans are dying unnecessarily, and the health and economic costs of this addiction are staggering," Beitsch said.
Most smokers, Beitsch said, "want to quit" and they simply need a combination of higher cigarette costs and easy-to-use cessation programs as incentives to help them quit.
Perception is particularly important to teen-agers who are debating the choice of whether to smoke, the health commissioner said.
"We have to create an environment which stresses that it isn't cool to smoke, while making it difficult and uncomfortable to buy cigarettes," Beitsch said.
He said the coalition's goals were "ambitious" but reachable.
"Never before as public servants have we pooled our energies and those of our partners into a single focus such as this."
Doug Matheny, director of the state Office of Tobacco Use Prevention, said the latest data indicates 23 percent of Oklahoma adults are cigarette smokers while nearly 33 percent of teen- agers smoke.
Nearly 90 percent of adult smokers "are addicted by the age of 21," said Terry L. Cline, state commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Cigarettes, Cline said, provide the "trigger" that eventually leads to the abuse of alcohol, marijuana and illegal drugs.
"We have to stop smoking before it really starts," said Mike Fogarty, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Fogarty said he recently gave himself a 50th birthday present by quitting smoking after a pack- a-day habit for 25 years.
Paul Murphy, head of the American Cancer Society's Heartland division, said a direct correlation exists between higher cigarette prices and a decrease in smoking.
But two students from the Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City said teen-agers who want to smoke usually can steal cigarettes from their parents.
Contacted in New York for reaction to Oklahoma's proposals, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA said Monday that the cigarette manufacturer "agrees that more should be done to address the problem of youth smoking.
"We need to teach kids to make better decisions," Tom Ryan said.
Philip Morris, Ryan said, "does not discourage people who want to quit smoking."
Primarily, the tobacco giant "wants to remain competitive in the market ... for adults who have made the decision to smoke."