Action needed now to reduce Oklahoma’s leading cause of preventable death

Action needed now to reduce Oklahoma’s leading cause of preventable death

By Governor Mary Fallin
Special to Guthrie News Page

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Improving the health of Oklahomans has been a continuing goal of my administration.

And the most important thing we can do to improve our health is to reduce Oklahoma’s leading cause of preventable death – smoking.

That’s why at the start of this year’s legislative session three months ago I proposed increasing the tax on cigarettes. It is the single most effective way to reduce smoking.

And with this year’s legislative session scheduled to end May 27, legislators are running out of time.

Lawmakers have two options. They can approve the cigarette tax themselves, which would require a three-fourths majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, or approve a measure sending the question to a vote of the people in November.

I prefer they decide the issue themselves. The revenue from the tax, estimated at $181.6 million a year, can start pouring in immediately, which would help offset some of the $1.3 billion deficit facing our state in the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The additional revenue also could prevent large health-care provider cuts, which could result in the closing of hospitals and nursing homes across the state, or help with public school expenses. Legislators can decide as they grapple with crafting a balanced budget by the time they adjourn.

Putting the measure on the November general election ballot means the additional revenue won’t be available in the upcoming fiscal year. And, of course, huge sums of money would be spent by big tobacco firms to kill the measure. There are going to be numerous state questions on the election ballot and voters may become fatigued or confused, thus not voting on the cigarette tax.

Polling shows overwhelming support on this issue. Recent surveys have shown that 74 percent of Oklahoma voters favor a $1.50 increase in the cigarette tax. And voters overwhelmingly support cigarette tax revenues being spent on two main areas of government: common education, to pay for public school teachers, and health, to fund tobacco cessation, Insure Oklahoma or cancer research.

As a former state legislator, I understand the pressure that can be placed on lawmakers by lobbyists, constituents and special-interest groups. But we’re talking about approving legislation that is the single-most effective strategy to improve Oklahomans’ health and reduce health costs and cigarette consumption.

Smoking kills more people than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined in Oklahoma. And it costs our state $1.6 billion in related health costs each year.

At the current rate, 88,000 Oklahoma children alive today will die prematurely of smoking-related illnesses.

Our overall smoking rate has dropped 19 percent since I took office, but about one in five Oklahomans still smokes.

Reducing the consumption of cigarettes is the most important thing we can do to improve Oklahoma’s health ranking.

Make no mistake about it, the science tells us strongly that this increase will save tens of thousands of Oklahomans’ lives for generations to come.

By enacting a $1.50 per pack increase in the tax on cigarettes, research has shown the following will happen:

  • 26 million fewer packs of cigarettes will be sold in the first year.
  • More than 29,000 adults will quit smoking in the first year.
  • 31,800 children alive today will be prevented from starting cigarette use.
  • When we have fewer people smoking, we will see dramatically reduced health care costs.
  • Long-term health care cost savings from fewer adults and youth smoking equals $1.25 billion.
  • And each Oklahoma household would save $923 each year that is currently paid in federal and state taxes to cover smoking-related healthcare costs.

 Yes, I’m passionate about ways we can reduce smoking in our state. Both of my parents smoked and died from smoking-related causes.

 I’ve let the legislators know how I want them to vote on this issue. Now it’s your turn. I’m confident most of you agree with me.

 But act quickly. You’re almost out of time.

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