If you want to pick a sure-fire emotional political issue, consider restricting people's right to smoke.
Rep. Ray Vaughn, R-Edmond, did just that when he requested an interim legislative study on banning all smoking in restaurants. This week, the House Commerce, Industry and Labor Committee met to consider the proposal.
Those in favor of a ban cited the health hazard to restaurant employees. Those opposed to a ban cited the health hazard to their livelihood in the restaurant business.
Rep. Gary Stottlemyre, D-Tulsa, had his own solution: "If you're all that concerned, why don't you just ban non-smokers from restaurants?"
Vaughn hasn't drafted any legislation at this point. He said the purpose of the study was to take a reading on people's feelings about such a law. Some people at the meeting read the riot act.
Representatives of the American Cancer Society said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified second-hand smoke as a Class A carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. People who are regularly subjected to second-hand smoke are at a 30 percent higher risk for cancer, according to Dr. James Geyer.
Oklahoma will have 2,400 new cases of lung cancer this year and 2,100 deaths from lung cancer, he said. Cigarette smoke contains 4,000 chemical compounds and five known human carcinogens, he said.
Restaurant employees are the group most exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace. Geyer said one study in California showed that waitresses had the highest mortality rate among women's occupational groups.
Cherie Cobb, representing the American Lung Association, said waiters, waitresses and bartenders had a 50 percent greater chance of developing cancer. On the other hand, diners have a choice of where they want to eat, she said.
Just dividing a room into smoking and non-smoking sections doesn't accomplish anything, according to Cobb. The smoking area must be a room that's ventilated to the outside, to be really effective.
Rep. Laura Boyd, D-Norman said some restaurant owners in her district wondered if smoking would be banned from restaurant bar areas. If smoking was allowed in bar areas under any proposed law, it could discriminate against restaurants that didn't have a bar, she said.
Aubrey King of Edmond, representing the Oklahoma Smokers' Rights Group, blasted the EPA report as "controversial at best, if not flawed.
"If you change the rules, you can make them say anything you want them to say," he said. For one thing, the study was actually a combination of several studies, and the collective guidelines differed from study to study, he said.
"It's not being based on scientific evidence. It's being based on political science to psychologically engineer" behavior, he said. King claimed that in one lung association study, 70 percent of respondents said smoking in restaurants should "absolutely not" be banned.
Political rhetoric for the meeting was supplied by former state Rep. Benny Vanatta, who now lobbies for the Oklahoma Restaurant Association. The group has 2,000 members, "is the largest employer in the state, the largest employer of minorities, largest employer of women and the largest employer of young people at the entry level," he said.
Twenty-six percent of the population are smokers, and therefore 26 percent of restaurant customers are smokers, Vanatta said.
"Our members are upset, and more than a little incensed, that you would consider an interim study on banning smoking in restaurants," he said. The restaurant industry has been hit by taxes and other business issues at the federal level. Up to now, the state legislature has been friendly to the industry, Vanatta said.
Restaurants in Oklahoma which seat under 50 patrons don't have smoking regulations now, he said. …