Terry Cline, secretary of Health and Human Services and commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, talked about the future of Oklahoma’s health, as well as the benefits of passing a cigarette tax increase of $1.50 per pack. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

As the Legislature put the special session on a long recess and the state’s health department announced cost saving measures, the agency’s director spent Wednesday advocating in Tulsa for the approval of a cigarette tax.

“So the Legislature right now has struggled with the issue (cigarette tax) year in and year out,” said Terry Cline, secretary of Health and Human Services and commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

“And part of that is, I’ll just speak candid, we have about 13 paid tobacco lobbyists working that cabinet. … They don’t care that it’s killing 7,000 Oklahomans every single year because it’s money in their pocket.

“Rather, that money is more important to them then our lives and the lives of our kids in the next generation. We are losing that argument.”

Cline’s comments came during a town hall at the Oklahoma Public Health Association’s annual conference in Tulsa on Wednesday afternoon. Some of the state’s top public health leaders discussed the future of Oklahoma residents’ health during a one-hour moderated panel.

On Wednesday morning, Oklahoma’s House speaker called for a recess until the Legislature can come back with a deal for the $215 million shortfall in the state’s budget.

The House was expected to vote on the proposed cigarette tax increase of $1.50 per pack on Wednesday, but that plan changed when it became clear it wouldn’t have enough votes to pass, The Oklahoman reported.

A cigarette tax was passed in the final days of the legislative session, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in August — the same month it was to go into effect — that the tax was unconstitutional.

The tax was estimated to bring in more than $200 million for the state’s budget.

Other speakers at the town hall included Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, and Gary Cox, executive director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

The panel began by addressing a national study that placed Oklahoma as one of five unhealthiest states in the country in 2016.

Cline and other speakers pointed to the health benefits of upping the price on a pack of cigarettes.

“Of course we care about the funding from state government, but we are concerned primarily about people’s health, improving people’s health and so there are huge gains in that policy change for our state,” Cline said. “If you can increase the price by $1.50, then we’ll have 30,000 adults who are current smokers, will quit.

“Just too expensive to smoke, so they’ll quit. We’ll have about 28,000 young people who will choose not to pick up the cigarette habit because it’s too darn expensive.”

Cox said from a health perspective, the cigarette tax would be the ideal solution.

“To fill the budget shortfall, that tobacco tax would be a great first step,” he said. “You think it would kinda be an automatic.”

Cline ended the discussion by requesting people in attendance to take action.

“You’re going to be sending emails to the Legislature, to people that you know, and say, ‘Raise the price of a pack of cigarettes by $1.50. It will save lives in the state. Please stop playing games,'” Cline said. “We need to stop playing games with people’s lives. So that’s what we want.”

Health department announces money saving measures

At the same time of the town hall, the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced agency personnel would be taking an unpaid furlough day during each two-week pay cycle starting Oct. 30.

“Since federal funds are nearly 60% of the OSDH budget, reductions in federal funds at the same time we are experiencing state budget shortfalls make for a perfect storm,” said Julie Cox-Kain, OSDH Senior Deputy Commissioner, in a statement.

The measure affects only employees making more than $35,000 per year.

The agency, which reported an almost 30 percent decrease in its budget since 2009, is taking the measure because of an estimated $10 million budget shortfall.

The health department also announced it is preparing a voluntary out offer to reduce staffing levels statewide.