The battle to decide the legality of the state's new cigarette fee is heating up. Tobacco companies filed a lawsuit last month saying legislators waited too long to pass the bill, but doctors now argue this law could be an exception to the rule.
The cigarette fee was one of the last pieces of legislation to be approved this year, but state law says revenue bills cannot be passed in the final five days of the session. The Oklahoma State Medical Association filed new court documents, however, saying that this is a debate about health over wealth.
“It’s one of the single greatest battles I face dealing with patients,” says vascular surgeon Dr. Kevin Taubman, president of the OSMA.
Taubman says he sees the impact of tobacco products on a daily basis, which is why he and 4,000 other doctors across the state backed an additional $1.50 fee for each pack of cigarettes sold, citing research that shows a 10 percent tax increase leads to a 3-5 percent decrease in tobacco use among adults.
“We need to quit turning a blind eye to the very thing that is costing the health and wellbeing of our citizens,” says Taubman.
As time ran out in the legislature, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and Phillip Morris USA were quick to sue the state for passing the measure too late. Lawmakers tried labeling the cost as a “fee” to deter tobacco use instead of calling it a “tax” outright, but the tobacco companies said in a news release that the bill’s "overwhelming aim is to raise revenue, and in fact, it is projected to collect well over $200 million in taxes in just the next fiscal year, making it the Legislature’s largest revenue bill of 2017."
OSMA points to precedents in New York and Rhode Island, however, in which Supreme Courts upheld similar laws because of their benefit to the citizens.
“When a public health issue is felt to be such an overwhelming crisis,” says Taubman, “in those circumstances, sometimes, the Supreme Court will pull out certain portions of this because they think it’s in overall public health interest.”
Oklahoma's Supreme Court will hear the case August 8, just three weeks before the cigarette fee is scheduled to go into effect. If the bill is overturned, doctors say they will continue to work with legislators to introduce it again next year.
News 9 reached out the legal team representing the tobacco companies, but has not yet received a response.