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Attorney General vows to defend state in tobacco lawsuit

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Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said he will defend the state after two major tobacco companies filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma challenging the constitutionality of a tobacco cessation fee.

Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds filed suit with the Oklahoma Supreme Court over a bill that was signed into law in May. Senate Bill 845 assesses a fee of $1.50 per pack of cigarettes, to be paid for by wholesalers. Lawmakers approved the fee as a revenue-raising measure to help fill Oklahoma nearly $900 million budget hole and as a way to reduce smoking rates in the state.

The fee, which some say could raise more than $2 million by next June, is designed to help fund health initiatives in Oklahoma.

The suit claims that the bill is not a cessation fee and is instead a strictly revenue raising bill. According to the lawsuit, all revenue-raising bills must originate in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, be passed before the last five days of session and be approved by a ¾ supermajority of House members.

“The office has received a copy of the lawsuit and it is under review,” said Hunter in response to the suit.

“As outlined in Title 74, it is the duty and responsibility of the office of the attorney general to defend the state against lawsuits and other legal matters. Just as the office has handled lawsuits challenging legislation in the past, we will move forward to respond to this lawsuit as we look to provide the best outcome for our clients, which include the governor, the legislature and the citizens of the state of Oklahoma.” 

In addition to the two tobacco companies, two retailers, three residents and one wholesale company are included in the suit against the state. The fee is scheduled to go into effect in August.

Revenue from the cigarette fee was included in the budget that state legislators passed in May with $75 million slated for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Serves, $70 million for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and $69 million for the Department of Human Services.

As the Oklahoma Legislature battled to pass a working budget, many lawmakers brought up concerns about the constitutionality of the cigarette fee. Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-OKC) commented on Facebook that warned a lawsuit might be the result of passing the bill.

State Rep. Jason Dunnington says that Oklahoma’s Constitution clearly states that lawmakers cannot pass revenue raising measures in the last five days of session.

“If this budget passes on the House floor either today or tomorrow when we run it, it has $350 million of revenue in it that could get held up in the courts. So if a citizen or a corporation or someone believes that what we did was unconstitutional and files a suit, it could go to the Supreme Court and they could rule that indeed, it was unconstitutional,” the Oklahoma City Democrat said.

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