Few dare call it bribery: OK grants, e-cigs, and another brick in the wall - Watchdog.org

Few dare call it bribery: OK grants, e-cigs, and another brick in the wall

By   /   December 11, 2013  /   No Comments

By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog

OKLAHOMA CITY – Call me slow, but don’t call me dumb.

Call me patient, but don’t call me long-suffering.

Slow to burn? Yep. Clueless? Nope.

The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) is cajoling and pressuring local communities into equating e-cigarettes and similar products — “personal vaporizers” as fans call them — with tobacco.

BUCKS AND BANS = BRIBERY? Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust is linking local healthy community grants to bans on non-tobacco electronic cigarettes.

Maybe I should have figured out what TSET was up to when Jonathan Small, policy vice president for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said TSET’s “recent actions demonizing and profiling e-cigarettes are yet more evidence of the need for strict oversight and a complete overhaul of TSET and its activities. TSET should be about real and lasting solutions for health care, not the selective discriminatory efforts of biased bureaucrats.”

This week, Small observed in an interview: “TSET funds are essentially being used to incentivize communities to pass extreme burdens on alternatives to combustible tobacco products.”

An editor of mine translated it this way: “Seems like bribery to me.”

Well, yes.

This conclusion flows not merely from the connection of brain synapses for an observant scribe (me) — or the liberty-sensitive beliefs of a passionate analyst (Small).

When the town of Ada, passed an e-cigarette ban on a 4-3 City Council vote, the Tecumseh Countywide News reported officials pushed it for two reasons: “(1) to bring current restrictions in line with other cities’ and the state’s initiatives to reduce injury or illness related to tobacco and (2) to help the city qualify for a healthy communities grant.”

TSET would be the grant-maker, so long as e-cigarettes were banned on public property.

Another such ordinance passed narrowly in Shawnee, but a similar proposal in Tahlequah was pulled after contentious debate.

Discussion in Tahlequah helped connect the dots. Val Dobbins, chairman of a Cherokee County program wanting grant money, said TSET sent down “these ordinances and they ask us to propose (them) in the cities.”

“First thing off the bat, in order for us to be certified healthy at the ‘excellent’ level for a city, the first thing they ask us for is to add e-cigarettes, or electronic smoking devices, to our ordinances that have to do with tobacco,” Dobbins said.

During debate in Tahlequah, words of clarifying honesty came a professor at Northeastern State University. He laid out the money trail of nearly $150,000 in grants to the county program. To add another brick in the wall limiting liberty, an “excellent” community must affirm that vapor is the same as tobacco smoke.

Then, reporter Jennifer Palmer’s recent story in the state’s largest newspaper put the equivalent of an exclamation point on the recent evidence.

In 2013, for the first time since TSET was created by voter referendum a decade ago, qualifications for top-end TSET grants to municipal governments and other recipients were amended to include “smokeless tobacco products on all city-owned properties indoors and outdoors, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.”

The Board of Regents for the Oklahoma State University and Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges has joined the juggernaut against e-cigarettes.

The anti-vapes push is now an institutional priority for TSET. The trust’s incentives to treat personal vaporizers the same as tobacco — with the force of a $39 million budget — were not discussed at the Regents meeting, but no one will be surprised when OSU or the city of Stillwater applies for a major TSET grant.

Tucker Link, chairman of the OSU/A&M Board, said putting vapor devices in the same category as tobacco “complements Oklahoma State’s smoke-free campus initiative.” There was a six-week delay in the board’s decision, “to allow opponents and proponents an opportunity” to fight.

That a unanimous board enacted a limitation on liberty that apparently had the support of most (but not all) students and of most (but not all) faculty is less persuasive than wisdom of old, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence:

“That government is best, which governs least.”

Now, an e-cig ban is likely to be considered right here in my hometown, which makes it a bit more personal.

“Vape” users testify about the enjoyment (and comparative less harm than tobacco) gained from the devices.

Why, in the first place, is this a matter with which government is concerned?

Why should government at any level begrudge them their enjoyment?

Beyond the grants game, could the lure of another source of heightened tax revenue be a driving force?

Supporters of a ban on c-cigarettes press on even though there is no persuasive evidence of substantial harm from their use.

So, we see entering into law these words or their equivalent: “E-cigarettes are the same thing as tobacco.”

Repetition does not make the statement accurate.

Leaders of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust are squandering trust (and an important but limited mandate) given in a voter referendum.

Few dare to call the unfolding process bribery, but it is.

And more, it is a new incarnation of what Jean Francois Revel memorably called “The Totalitarian Temptation.”

The state Legislature should place practical limits on an accelerating abuse of power. No more bricks in the wall.

Contact Patrick McGuigan at [email protected]

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Patrick formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.