By SEAN ROWLEY
In the debate over the proposed ordinance to define and ban electronic smoking devices on city property in Tahlequah, some opponents have expressed concern about the motives of the Cherokee County Communities of Excellence Tobacco Control Program.
They fear it’s not about health, but rather about the money.
The program is part of a statewide effort to reduce tobacco consumption and promote healthy lifestyles, funded by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust.
Any funding the local program receives is held by the Cherokee County Health Services Council. A CCHSC statement online, pointed to by Dr. John Yeutter, a certified public accountant and associate professor of accounting at Northeastern State University, shows a TSET grant for $146,987 for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012.
The three largest categories of expense are $79,018 for “salaries, taxes and benefits”; $39,062 for tobacco cessation “marketing and campaigns”; and $11,560 for “travel and lodging.”
“I understand that community education is a labor-intensive job,” Yeutter said. “But what is being paid for? Is there a way to measure the program’s effectiveness?”
Carol Choate, director of Cherokee County Communities of Excellence Tobacco Control, defended the activities of the program.
“We work to eliminate second-hand smoke through changing environments such as clean indoor air ordinances, tobacco-free parks and 24-7 tobacco-free schools,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We work to prevent sales of tobacco to minors through Reward Reminder Visits to educate tobacco retailers about tobacco sales laws related to minors. We promote tobacco cessation through Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline. This helpline provides FDA approved nicotine replacement therapy [but does] not include electronic smoking devices as a cessation method.”
Choate also pointed to Students Working Against Tobacco, and said there is evidence that the programs work.
“We work to expose Big Tobacco practices to target our youth as replacement smokers,” she said. “That is what our SWAT youth are all about. We have 12 teams in Cherokee County, all sponsored by school districts. Oklahoma has gone from 49th to 43rd in overall health standings. We have less smokers than before. Smoking is down nationwide and there are studies indicating state smoking cessation programs are effective.”
Choate said all funding comes from TSET and is “reimbursement,” adding that TSET scrutinizes expenditures.
“TSET doesn’t give us $199,000, and off we go,” she said. “They pay us back according to the invoices. The financial manual of guidelines is thick and very specific. We have to follow it or costs won’t be approved. We do not accept money from tobacco companies. We must sign waivers with everyone we work with that they don’t take money from the tobacco industry.”
Health Services Council plays a role; state doesn’t regulate
Members of the CCHSC are Dr. George Foster, retired dean of the NSU College of Optometry; Dr. Martin Venneman, NSU dean of Science Health Administration; Brian Woodliff, CEO of Tahlequah City Hospital; Mitchell Thornbrugh, COO at Cherokee Nation W.W. Hastings Hospital; and Patricia Gulager, registered nurse and healthcare administrator.
The board meets the third Monday of each month at the CCHSC office at 135 N. Muskogee Ave. Agendas are posted in the days prior to the meeting at the office and placed in the Cherokee County Courthouse. The office does not keep regular hours, but messages can be left at (918) 506-4058.
There are currently no statewide laws on the books to regulate e-cigarettes, though some municipalities have banned them on city property – most recently, Ada. According to State Rep. Mike Brown, the Legislature proposed a regulatory measure last year, but it failed on a 66-29 vote.
“It most likely was filed on behalf of the tobacco industry to control competition,” Brown said. “The e-cigs are less offensive to the non-smokers I’ve talked to. I don’t know if there is enough data yet on what health concerns there will be with its use.”
The bill summary read: “H.B. 2097 defines tobacco-revived and vapor products. Makes it unlawful to sell tobacco-derived products or vapor products to a person under 18 years of age. Provides that no state excise tax or tobacco products tax assessed on vapor products. Provides that a tax of 10 cents per tobacco-derived product unit and a proportionate tax at the like rate on all fractional parts of a tobacco-derived product unit. Provides administrative punishment for persons in possession of more than 1,000 small or large cigars or 200 sixteen ounces of chewing or smoking tobacco products or tobacco-derived products in packages or containers for which the tax required by law has not been paid.”
Age restrictions do not apply to the purchase and use of ESDs, though Captain Vapor will not sell to those under age 18, and a patron must be at least 18 to enter Evolution Fine Cigars.
Businesses downtown have mixed opinions
A walk through the North End district downtown reveals that proprietors are as split on the issue of e-smoking as the population. It is permitted at Iguana Cafée and Sam and Ella’s; it is not allowed at Vidalia’s and The Branch.
“But I am an e-smoker,” said Kristopher Snyder, chef and assistant general manager at The Branch. “There are about five guys who work in the kitchen who have given up cigarettes. I’ve only been doing it three weeks and I am already down from a pack a day to one or two cigarettes a day. And my device doesn’t even use nicotine. I think my addiction is more just doing something - putting a cigarette to my mouth.”
Some who support the ordinance see no problem with the city’s regulating behavior on its property, and even some opponents believe there may be little they can do if councilors want the ESDs banned.
Reasons for opposition vary. Some are ex-smokers who believe they have found a way to handle their addiction without the annoyance of smoke. Others believe nicotine users have surrendered enough ground through the decades. Some just want to go to city parks and “vape.”
“I don’t believe tobacco and nicotine are the same thing,” Yeutter said. “Users are adults who are seeking an alternative to cigarettes. Some guy who is watching his kids at the soccer fields for two hours and vapes up to ease his nicotine addiction - how is he endangering or offending anybody?”
Some who are actively involved in community issues – such as Dr. Shannon Grimes, chairman of the Republican Party of Cherokee County – oppose the ordinance on libertarian grounds.
“My position is that government, be it federal, state or the city of Tahlequah, should not prohibit goods, services and behaviors without compelling reason,” Grimes wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Press. “That reason should be based on more than concerns, fears, or dislike of someone else’s lifestyle and behaviors. If it is not damaging others or others’ property, it is probably none of my or the government’s business, no matter my personal opinion on the issue.”
A revised ordinance will be read and discussed at the next special meeting of the Tahlequah City Council on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall, 111 S. Cherokee Ave. The council will have the option of voting on the ordinance.