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FOR RELEASE: May 19, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

Critical Time for a Critical Issue
By Ron L. Graves, DDS
President, Oklahoma State Board of Health

As the end of session draws near, our legislature is poised to take action that will yield tremendous benefit—literally saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars. Latest statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that each year, tobacco-related deaths in Oklahoma approach 6,000. An estimated 750 additional deaths result from exposure to secondhand smoke. The cost to Oklahomans for tobacco-related direct medical care expenses and lost productivity exceeds $2.2 billion each year.

Legislative proposals currently in committee will ensure clean air in most public places and work places—a proposal actively supported by a large majority of the population and virtually every health care organization in the state. Notably, the Oklahoma Restaurant Association has also endorsed legislation requiring all restaurants to be smokefree to protect their patrons and employees from the risks of involuntary exposure.

These initiatives will also provide a clear statement of recognition of risks associated with tobacco use. A culture shift in Oklahoma is badly needed. A majority of smokers polled support clean air policies in public places. Seventy percent of current smokers wish to be non-smokers and have tried to quit multiple times. How many of these would wish for their children to become smokers? Yet, youth smoking rates in Oklahoma remain alarmingly high.

As smoke-free public places policies are implemented in increasing areas around the country, the relative health of our state is at risk of falling further behind. Oklahoma’s statistical health indicators rank our state a dismal 46th in the nation. The leading preventable cause of death and disability in the state is tobacco-related illness—there is no close second. By comparison, the death rate from tobacco-related chronic pulmonary disease in California has actually decreased since 1988 when that state began a comprehensive tobacco reduction program that included clean indoor air measures. During that same period, the national average death rate increased 11 percent and in Oklahoma, the death rate from tobacco-related pulmonary disease has increased 27 percent!

With the exceptional pressure on legislators due to the state’s budget shortfall, one would assume such a widely supported initiative that will save lives, prevent disability, and save money—all without expenditure of tax dollars—would be an easy decision. Political forces are at work, however, which threaten to undermine the proposed bills in committee. Our legislators who have brought these important proposals this far are to be commended and we sincerely hope that this opportunity will not be lost. The public’s appeal for a breath of fresh air during this session is clear. Passage of these measures can be a significant step in improving the health statistics and the health of Oklahomans.

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