Tahlequah Daily Press

August 19, 2013

Okla. not doing enough to fight cancer, group says

By Dale Denwalt
CNHI News Service

ENID, Okla. — Oklahoma has failed to adopt important policies to fight and prevent cancer, an advocacy group affiliated with American Cancer Society reported.

Of 10 benchmarks scored by the ACS Cancer Action Network, Oklahoma had only moderate progress in four of the categories. The rest scored below the group's standards for tobacco policy, physical education, youth tanning and Medicaid expansion.

Link: See how other states fared in the full report

There are 14 states that have no statewide rules creating smoke-free establishments; Oklahoma is one of them, the group said.

In this year's regular legislative session, Gov. Mary Fallin supported a bill giving control to local governments, which would allow them to ban smoking in public places. The measure died in a Senate committee just a few days into session.

Fallin has vowed to push for the policy elsewhere, calling for a public referendum to appear on the ballot in 2014, although she has not yet introduced a formal proposal.

Her spokesman, Alex Weintz, said Friday any plan to improve Oklahomans' health has to address tobacco.

"We never are excited about a report criticizing Oklahoma's health laws, but we certainly agree there is a lot that can be done to reduce tobacco use," he said.

Lawmakers must adopt policies "that help people fight cancer," Michelle Brown, state ambassador for ACS CAN, said alongside the report.

A significant part of prevention is tied to government spending. Last year, Oklahoma spent nearly $20 million to counter an estimated marketing push worth eight times that amount by the tobacco industry.

The state sat in the middling ground under this category by spending less than half of the federally recommended amount, ACS CAN said.

That $20 million is earned through interest accruing on a settled tobacco industry lawsuit. Any other funds would have to come with legislative approval.

Julie Bisbee, a spokeswoman for the state agency overseeing the endowment, said Oklahoma is unique among other states because it spends the settlement money solely on health care.

"Our efforts have been very effective for the conservative amount that makes sense for Oklahoma," she said.

ACS CAN also criticizes Oklahoma for falling behind on taxing tobacco products. According to its report, Oklahoma charges an additional $1.03 per pack of cigarettes, or about two quarters less than the national average.

For comparison, Missouri only charges 17 cents in excise taxes and New York is the costliest at an extra $4.35 per pack.

By increasing taxes on cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and other types, the report states, Oklahoma policy makers can save lives, reduce health care costs and generate much-needed revenue.

"Evidence clearly shows that raising tobacco prices through regular and significant tax rate increases encourages tobacco users to quit or cut down their usage and helps prevent kids from ever starting to smoke," the study states.

Oklahoma also has not raised taxes on cigarettes for the past six years, according to the report.

The state also had low marks on tanning bed restrictions for minors and school exercise requirements, according to the group’s scoring criteria.

Fallin’s spokesman isn’t sure he agrees with the lower-than-average physical education score in the report, citing the growing number of certified "healthy schools."

"We're aware that healthy living starts at a young age and that public schools have a role to play in that," Weintz said.

ACS CAN also chides Oklahoma for rejecting Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which the organization supported through its passage. Under the health care law, states have the option to expand Medicaid to cover single adults whose annual salary is no more than $15,282.

Fallin opposed the expansion last year, saying at the time it could cost Oklahoma hundreds of millions of dollars during the first six years of expansion. Weintz said the issue is not about whether it’s a good idea. Rather, he said, it’s about being fiscally responsible so other key areas of government aren’t affected.

"Absolutely we want to expand access to affordable care in Oklahoma. We want to reduce or at least contain health care costs. But the health issue as a state that we're facing is obesity and smoking," he said.

Dale Denwalt writes for the Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle.