The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust and a legislative watchdog group disagree about a lot and agree about little.
The trust was the object of a critical report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency last month. The report said the trust spends too much helping Oklahomans get free of their nicotine addictions and that the results are not good enough. Among other things, the report suggests lawmakers reorganize the trust “within an existing state agency.”
The trust defends its work and its independence, pointing out accurately that the Legislature is responsible for part of the state’s smoking problem. Under heavy tobacco industry lobbying, lawmakers have repeatedly refused to allow effective local regulation of smoking in public places.
The trust’s independent structure was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2000 and reaffirmed by a 59% majority just last year, when the Legislature sought to raid tobacco trust money to fund Medicaid expansion.
We’re not going to wade too deep into the report’s complaints or the trust’s responses, but think one issue both sides agree on deserves more attention: e-cigarettes.
Vaping products are largely outside Oklahoma’s tobacco laws and are exempt from the state’s relatively heavy tobacco tax. With cigarettes heavily taxed and e-cigarettes subject only to the ordinary sales tax, many consumers — especially young smokers — are moving that way.
A 2020 study by the Truth Initiative found that young people using e-cigarettes were seven times more likely to try a regular cigarette within one year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nicotine can affect the parts of the adolescent brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control. The CDC also reports that using nicotine in adolescence may also increase risk for future addiction to other drugs.
As the legislative report points out, Oklahoma vaping retailers aren’t licensed, meaning the state really has no control over who is selling an addictive drug to the public.
The legislative report says 26 states have vaping product taxes; 12 regulate indoor use of e-cigarettes and 30 license retail sales. But not Oklahoma.
To fight Big Tobacco’s efforts to addict another generation to nicotine, the Legislature should follow all three courses: apply the tobacco tax to e-cigarettes, require licenses and genuine regulation of vaping sales in the state and allow local governments to regulate indoor smoking.
Before taking on a more adventurous agenda aimed at the trust’s governance and its money, the Legislature ought to first prove its independence from the tobacco lobby and its desire to protect young Oklahomans.