By Trent England
Why does a state agency award grants for “alcohol use prevention” while promoting bars? And why would any state agency spend money to promote “drag shows” and other raunchy programs at nightclubs?
OCPA’s Center for Investigative Journalism recently reported that Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) “is so focused on opposition to smoking that it promotes bars and nightclubs as long as the venues promise to be smoke free.”
TSET, created in the Oklahoma Constitution in 2000, is insulated from control by voters or legislators. Its mandates include “research and treatment [of] cancer and other tobacco-related diseases” and “tobacco prevention and cessation programs,” but also catchalls like “Programs…designed to maintain or improve the health of Oklahomans” and “Programs and services for the benefit of the children of Oklahoma.” Its bank account has grown to more than $1.1 billion.
A few years ago, TSET hired a California consulting firm that labels itself “the behavior change agency” to create Free The Night. In the last two years, TSET spent $653,150 on this program to offer “promotional opportunities to smokefree bars and clubs.” On its own website and social media pages, Free The Night promotes 35 “partners” that are “smokefree bars and clubs.”
The Center for Investigative Journalism report points out that, “Many are traditional bars, sports bars, or dance clubs, but some of these TSET-promoted businesses offer racier fare.”
"One Tulsa club specializes in scantily clad women performing burlesque shows, another recently featured male strippers, and a third is advertising “torture acts” and a “spanking booth” as part of an upcoming event. A fourth Tulsa venue specializes in programs featuring men dressed as women and hosts watch parties for “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
Perhaps most startling is the Oklahoma City club that TSET’s Free The Night website calls “a safe, supervised, and smoke-free place to hang out” and “an exciting, different place for youth to spend their weekends.” The Free The Night site links to the club’s Facebook page, which shows that most of the programs involve men dressed, but often barely dressed, as women. With TSET’s help, the club targets teenagers, inviting people as young as 15 to attend programs like “drag 101” and making show times earlier “so our younger crowd can actually stay and see the show.” There is no upper age limit at the club."
According to a presentation last year by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, “excessive alcohol use cost $3.08 billion [in Oklahoma] in 2010 as a result of lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime.” Part of the Department’s mission is to provide services to the 251,000 Oklahomans who are dependent on or otherwise abusing alcohol. But while one state agency tries to combat alcohol abuse, TSET is spending state money to promote drinking.
Here are just a few quotes from TSET’s Free The Night website.
- Boosting a Tulsa bar: “Don’t forget about happy hour…you can buy a shot and get a free domestic beer.”
- About an Oklahoma City club, TSET encourages Oklahomans to enjoy “both cold and hot cocktails” and “friendly female staff.”
- TSET promotes a Tulsa club that “specializes in vodkas (boasting the largest selection in Oklahoma!) and house-made drink infusions – but also offers a wide range of beer and wine.”
Beyond the hypocrisy of spending state dollars to promote shots, cocktails, and vodka infusions, consider what else those funds could buy. The state share of nursing home costs is $51.45 per day. That means TSET’s Free The Night spending could have covered the state’s share of 12,694 days of nursing home care.
Many Oklahomans are still struggling with the results of collapsed oil prices. Over the last decade, the national recession and then our local recession have caused families and businesses to make hard choices, to cut costs, to do more with less. At the same time, the growth of state government has slowed and some have insisted the only answer is higher taxes. There is simply nothing left, they tell us, to cut and reallocate money to higher priorities.
With government spending at an all-time high, and examples like TSET, Oklahomans are right to push back. Money-saving reforms abound, along with other ways to balance the books without damaging tax hikes.
Trent England serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he also is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for the Advancement of Liberty and directs the Center for the Constitution & Freedom and the Save Our States project. He also hosts a radio program, The Trent England Show, from 7 to 9 a.m. every weekday on Oklahoma’s AM 1640, “The Eagle.”