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Veterans centers’ residents exempt from state-property tobacco ban

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New residents of the facilities will have to agree to live by the tobacco-free policy, but current residents will be exempt from the governor’s order.

“As the public servants of Oklahoma implement this policy, the former service member residents of the veterans centers of Oklahoma especially deserve our best efforts to reasonably implement this health initiative considering their unique residential circumstances,” Steven Mullins, general counsel to Fallin, wrote Friday to the members of the War Veterans Commission.

In February, Fallin signed an executive order banning tobacco use on state property.

On all other state property, the ban takes full effect in August, but Mullins’ letter indicates that the policy might not take full effect at veterans centers until Jan. 1, 2015, with current residents exempted permanently.

The exemption would apply only to veterans living at the veterans centers; staff and visitors must honor the tobacco-free policy.

Signs announcing the ban went up a few weeks ago in the state’s seven veterans centers – long-term care facilities in Ardmore, Claremore, Clinton, Lawton, Norman, Sulphur and Talihina.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Rita Aragon said the policy stirred concerns, especially among residents who smoke.

“Obviously, there is a lot of high emotions on the veterans’ side of the house. They are very concerned because they actually learned to smoke from the military,” Aragon said.

About 20 percent of the 1,376 residents of state veterans centers use tobacco, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs said.

The lawmakers who head the legislative committees with oversight of the agency had urged an exemption for the resident veterans.

“It should be left up to the individual centers,” said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, an Oklahoma City Republican and chairman of the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. “They should probably allow an area somewhere on the property … to smoke their cancer sticks.”

Wesselhoft, who does not smoke, is a retired U.S. Army chaplain.

Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, said he understands the intent of the governor’s policy but thinks resident veterans shouldn’t be forced to go smoke-free.

“I think we ought to look at the issue realistically,” he said. “These are largely men who have been hardened by battle, and they’ve been through a lot. The ability to enjoy a tobacco product ought to be taken into consideration.”

Aragon, a retired Oklahoma Air National Guard major general, said it was going to be difficult for the veterans centers to meet the original deadline but that she is committed to making the facilities smoke-free eventually.

“It’ll be something we move into very slowly, very carefully,” she said in a recent interview.

In his letter to the commission, Mullins told members to come up with a policy that will phase a smoke-free environment into place by the beginning of 2015.

The policy must accommodate veterans with mental health and addiction issues, offer tobacco-cessation programs to resident veterans, include disclosure and acceptance provisions for new veterans coming into the homes, and include permanent exemptions for current residents, Mullins’ letter says.

His letter instructs the commission to submit its proposed implementation plan by Dec. 31.

Aragon said no one will be kicked out of a veterans center for refusing to comply with the tobacco-free policy.

“Absolutely and unequivocally, that’s not going to happen,” she said. “We would never want to do that. They’ve earned the right to be there.”

The U.S. military used to encourage members of the armed services to smoke – providing them with cigarettes in field rations and selling tobacco products at significantly lower prices on bases, she said.

Now the military actively discourages smoking, and so do the veterans centers, Aragon said, where smoking is restricted to designated rooms and particular areas outside. Neither staff nor visitors may smoke on campus.

The department doesn’t want to cause a hardship on veterans who smoke, but other residents who use oxygen equipment and those who don’t like being around tobacco smoke also have a right to live in a healthy environment, she said.

Alex Weintz, spokesman for Fallin, said the governor signed her executive order to address the No. 1 cause of premature death in the state.

“This isn’t to punish smokers,” Weintz said.

Tobacco use increases health-care and insurance costs in the state and costs every taxpayer $550 a year to pay for avoidable costs.

“That’s money we could be using on public safety, roads and schools,” Weintz said.

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