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Smoking in public targeted by Okla. health officials

/ Source: The Associated Press

Oklahoma cities and towns would have more power to crack down on smoking in public under a plan unveiled Monday by health officials and a group that represents local governments.

Public health advocates joined with the Oklahoma Municipal League to ask state lawmakers for legislation that would allow local governments to adopt tobacco policies that are more restrictive than the current state laws. Smoking is now banned in most indoor places to which the public has access, but there are numerous exceptions including bars and some restaurants.

State statutes prohibit cities and towns from enacting tobacco policies that are more restrictive than state law.

Smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States and kills about 6,000 Oklahoma residents every year, said Dr. Terry Cline, commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

"We have a killer running rampant in our communities," Cline said. "There are literally people dying in Oklahoma every single day (from smoking).

"Yet, at the local level, our ability to protect our families has been removed."

House Speaker-elect Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, already has said he supports the idea of local control and plans to introduce a bill to eliminate the so-called pre-emption provision on tobacco during the upcoming legislative session.

Support from legislative leaders like Steele should give proponents the momentum they need to get a bill through the Legislature and to the governor's desk, said Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn, a former state lawmaker. He said previous attempts to remove the pre-emption language were thwarted.

"All have met with failure due to the continued influence of the tobacco industry in the Oklahoma Legislature," Vaughn said. "This issue has basically been frozen at the state level since 1987."

Vaughn said an example of restrictions that local cities and towns may seek is to ban smoking in all public places, including hotels, bars and restaurants.

Telephone messages left Monday with registered tobacco company lobbyists in Oklahoma were not immediately returned.

Oklahoma is one of only two states that prohibit communities from adopting tobacco ordinances stronger than state law, said Carolyn Stager, director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, which represents cities and towns across the state. The other is Tennessee.

"Local leaders are in the best position to respond to the emerging tobacco industry strategies and help protect the physical and economic health of their citizens," Stager said.