By Michael McNutt
Tobacco products at all state-owned and leased properties and in state-owned and leased buildings and vehicles will be banned effective July 1 under an executive order signed Monday by Gov. Mary Fallin.
The announcement drew applause, but groans were heard seconds later in the House of Representatives chamber when she announced the ban would mean the closing of a smoking room in the state Capitol for lawmakers and employees.
"You're going to like this one, too," she joked as she announced the smoking room, in the Capitol's basement, would be remodeled -- at no expense to the state -- into a small fitness center. The state is seeking a grant from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust and the Oklahoma Hospital Association has agreed to match it, Fallin said.
The governor announced she had signed the tobacco ban during her State of the State speech to lawmakers, which kicks off this year's four-month legislative session. She said its purpose is to protect the health of employees and people visiting state-owned properties.
The ban also is intended to drive down one of the major factors of increasing health care costs for state employees, decrease employee absenteeism and increase productivity, according to the governor's office. The ban is expected to save the state $5.2 million annually.
Smoking is the No. 1 cause of death in Oklahoma and the U.S., the governor's office said. Fallin made the ban effective several months from now to give state employees time to consider taking smoking cessation programs.
It will be up to individual agencies to enforce the ban, said Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director. However, the governor's office hopes it will be largely self-enforced.
The state Tourism and Recreation Department will post notices about the tobacco ban at its parks, campsites and lodges across the state to make sure visitors know about it, said agency spokeswoman Leslie Blair.
"We'll enforce the governor's order," she said. "Our parks are a place where Oklahomans can come and exercise and get healthy and this ban goes hand-in-hand with that."
Tracey Strader, executive director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, said tobacco-free policies have little cost associated with them and create an environment that promotes healthy choices. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
"It is a historic day for the state and people of Oklahoma," Strader said. "Policies like Governor Fallin's executive order have been proven to reduce tobacco use and protect the public and workers from exposure to secondhand smoke.
"There are already very effective, free resources in place to help employers support tobacco-using employees and help people quit in preparation for this new policy," Strader said.
Strader's agency provides a toll-free telephone service to help Oklahomans quit tobacco use: (800) 784-8669.
Craig Jones, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said the tobacco ban on state properties and in state vehicles is a turning point in Oklahoma's effort to improve it status. The state is ranked 48th in overall health indicators in the nation.
"Our member hospitals see firsthand the devastating health effects resulting from tobacco use as well as the financial toll of fighting tobacco-related diseases," he said.
Fallin also asked legislators to pass a bill that would reduce liability to schools so parents and others could join children in using tracks, courts and exercise equipment.
Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, has written legislation that would protect schools that would keep their doors unlocked and lights on after hours from liability concerns.
"Giving schools this basic protection from lawsuits will ensure our schools can transform into centers for physical activity in communities across our state," he said. "This is an easy and common-sense approach to improving Oklahoma's health outcomes."
In her speech, Fallin proposed financial rewards to encourage schools to serve nutritious foods and promote physical activity.
Fallin said she is seeking more funds to enhance the state's infant mortality prevention program. "Infant mortality rates in Oklahoma can and must be improved," she said.