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FOR RELEASE: October 10, 2002
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
405/271-5601

Big Tobacco Behind the Scenes of Oklahoma Lawsuit

At least three major tobacco companies are contributing financial and legal assistance to defend the Oklahoma Restaurant Association (ORA) in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Lung Association of Oklahoma. The suit concerns the Americans with Disabilities Act, current state law on smoking inside public places and the emergency secondhand smoke rules adopted by the State Board of Health last summer.

In court papers filed by the ORA’s attorneys, the association acknowledged that it is receiving financial and legal support for its defense from Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Lorillard Tobacco Company and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

“The ORA has consistently objected to the Board of Health’s secondhand smoke rules as interfering with their goals to provide ‘hospitality’ to their customers,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch. “It now appears that the ORA leadership is actually more interested in providing ‘hospitality’ to big tobacco companies who are only interested in protecting their bottom line. “

“What’s been lost in the rhetoric of the ORA is the very real effect secondhand smoke has on the health of restaurant employees and patrons,” Beitsch said. “As worldwide medical and scientific evidence continues to build concerning the health effects of secondhand smoke, the restaurant association should be concerned about the health of restaurant workers and their customers, as well as ORA members’ legal liability in lawsuits filed by employees or patrons under common law, workers compensation or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”

Court documents from several cases across the country, as well as previously secret tobacco industry documents, demonstrate that the tobacco industry has continuously mounted an aggressive and effective worldwide campaign to recruit restaurant and hospitality associations to serve as surrogates in fighting against smoke-free environments. Historically, major tobacco companies have made financial contributions to restaurant associations and have even blocked the publication of advertising in restaurant trade journals that inform restaurant owners of the risks of secondhand smoke.

This strategy has resulted in the concept of “accommodation,” promoted by the tobacco industry, which places a decision by some people to smoke above the health concerns of the majority of the public, thereby exposing nonsmokers, workers, children and the infirm to secondhand smoke. The accommodation strategy serves to obstruct effective totally smoke-free policies that could ultimately reduce cigarette consumption and cut profits of tobacco companies.

Studies indicate that smoking actually increases the operating expenses of a restaurant in higher maintenance, insurance and labor costs. The restaurateur pays for these costs, while it’s the tobacco industry that reaps the profit from tobacco sales. “Why would the restaurant association’s members continue to support its tactics with this kind of outcome?” Beitsch asked.

One answer may be that Big Tobacco long ago turned the leadership of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association into a de facto lobbying arm. In reality, their chief hit man, Benny Vanatta, is also a registered lobbyist for a tobacco company and as a legislator was mentioned in secret industry communications as one of the friendliest Oklahoma legislators to tobacco. Vanatta had indicated in comments after earlier court hearings that Big Tobacco would not share the cost of ORA litigation, however, the ORA apparently could no longer resist using tobacco money to help them. “The public, elected officials and the unknowing members of the restaurant association need to understand that with rare exception, when they hear from the Oklahoma Restaurant Association regarding secondhand smoke, they are effectively listening to Big Tobacco,” Beitsch said.

Meanwhile, it’s Big Tobacco that continues to drive disinformation concerning the economic impact of smoke-free restaurants. In 1993, a Philip Morris analyst observed, “the financial impact of smoking bans will be tremendous. Three to five fewer cigarettes per day (per person) will reduce annual manufacturer profits a billion dollars per year.”

However, more than 22 objective, independent studies have consistently demonstrated that restaurants do not suffer economic loss when they go smoke-free; in some cases, business has actually improved.

“We are appalled that the ORA’s leadership continues to allow their membership to be used to promote the tobacco industry at the enormous expense to the health of their employees and patrons,” Beitsch said. “With approximately 6,000 Oklahoma tobacco-related deaths per year, we wonder whether the members of the ORA recognize what their organization has become. By allowing Big Tobacco to run its association, the ORA is promoting the single largest preventable cause of death in Oklahoma - tobacco use - and that’s not hospitality.”

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