A History of Big Tobacco’s Preemption Push in Oklahoma

We spoke to Doug Matheny, Programs and Initiatives Manager for State and Local Policy at the University of Oklahoma TSET Health Promotion Research Center, about what tobacco preemption is and Big Tobacco’s nefarious role in statewide policy in Oklahoma.

Preemption is a vague term; can you explain what it means and how it impacts the ability of Oklahoma communities to take action on tobacco?

Very simply, preemption is when a higher level of government prohibits a lower level of government from acting on an issue. It’s the exception rather than the rule. With tobacco preemption, the state is prohibiting communities from adopting any ordinance stronger than Oklahoma’s weak statewide laws on smoking in workplaces, tobacco advertising and youth access to tobacco products.

How has preemption affected tobacco cessation in Oklahoma? What kind of policies are being prevented from going into effect on a local level?

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable illness and death. Most smokers started as kids and are trying to quit. However, if an Oklahoma community wants to take action to protect the health of their citizens from tobacco, in most circumstances, they can’t. For example, Oklahoma communities are not allowed to adopt 100% smokefree workplace laws. This is a major impediment to public health. We know smokefree workplace laws not only eliminate secondhand smoke, they help current smokers quit. Also, when smoking is not seen as commonplace, it lessens the likelihood of young people ever starting to smoke.

What led to tobacco preemption in Oklahoma?

Internal tobacco industry documents – made public by court order – show that tobacco companies have directly interfered in Oklahoma lawmaking for decades. In 1976, Oklahoma City was considering an ordinance to ban smoking in indoor concert venues. A tobacco company lobbyist mobilized quickly to defeat it. In late 1986, Edmond became the first Oklahoma community to restrict smoking in workplaces. In early 1987, Tulsa and other municipalities began considering similar ordinances. Tobacco industry lobbyists began to realize that they could not defeat a “proliferation” of local ordinances.”

At the same time, an anti-smoking bill was working its way through the state legislature. Initially opposed by Big Tobacco, they changed tactics. Instead of having to fight city ordinances wherever they appeared, Big Tobacco decided it would be easier to just weaken the statewide anti-smoking bill and add a preemptive clause prohibiting all Oklahoma communities from adopting any local smoking restrictions stronger than state law.

Would you say Big Tobacco was instrumental in making preemption a reality in Oklahoma?

Yes, that is quite clear. Their own internal documents show that tobacco companies are very pleased with their “leadership” on achieving preemption in Oklahoma. Oklahoma became just the second state in the nation to preempt local action on smoking in 1987. They were then successful in expanding Oklahoma’s preemptive language in 1994 to prohibit virtually any effective local action on tobacco. Their strategy in Oklahoma was so successful that within a few years, achieving preemption in all 50 states had become the top legislative priority of the tobacco industry.

When the public health community became aware of Big Tobacco’s nationwide preemption strategy, they started fighting back. In most states, lawmakers didn’t fall for it. Texas rejected tobacco preemption and now has 100+ communities with 100% smokefree laws. In fact, every major city in Texas has adopted a 100% smokefree workplace law, including all bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, Oklahoma and Tennessee are stuck with the most prohibitive preemptive tobacco laws in the nation.

Is it possible to remove preemption from Oklahoma’s tobacco laws?

It’s possible, but tough. Since 1987, many legislative efforts to repeal preemption have been blocked by tobacco industry interference. The good news is that as time goes by, awareness is growing about how Oklahoma laws have been misinformed by tobacco companies. In 2006, a federal court ruled that the largest US tobacco companies had repeatedly violated civil racketeering laws and were likely to continue their illegal behaviors. In 2017, the companies were ordered by the court to begin publishing statements addressing tobacco industry lies, including the truth about the health effects of secondhand smoke.

Big Tobacco is still at work in the Oklahoma legislature. In 2013, a bill that would have repealed tobacco preemption passed the House but was killed in a Senate committee. The Senator leading the effort to block that bill would later become a tobacco lobbyist. According to Oklahoma Ethics Commission records, there were 14 registered lobbyists in Oklahoma representing tobacco companies or tobacco industry trade associations this year.

Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on December 18, 2020