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Old habits die hard, especially in Tennessee

Kandy Childress, Community Contributor • Aug 8, 2019 at 11:37 AM

Tennessee is in many ways one of the best places in America to live and work, but for the past 20 years our state has consistently ranked among the 10 least healthy states in the nation. According to America’s Health Rankings 2018, Tennessee ranks 42nd in overall health and wellbeing.

Specifically, 22% of adults smoke, 33% of adults are obese, and 28% of adults are physically inactive. As a result, a half-million Tennesseans suffer from behavioral-related healthcare problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart and lung disease. According to the Sycamore Institute, our state has among the highest rates of behavior-related disease and associated direct medical care expenses, costing businesses $5.3 billion annually — more than it costs to educate all Tennessee students in grades K-12.

So why does Tennessee remain in a position that negatively impacts both quality and length of life as well as economic viability? The answer: old habits die hard in Tennessee, especially when it comes to tobacco use. You need to understand the history of how Tennessee became beholden to tobacco, even though tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., taking 6 million lives each year and impacting 16 million Americans who live with a disease caused by smoking.

According to the Nashville Scene’s Bill Carey, it all began in 1994 when the Tennessee state legislature was passing a series of laws meant to reduce teen smoking. Tobacco industry lobbyists quietly slid in an amendment effectively preventing local governments from passing “any law or regulation of tobacco products.” The tobacco industry wanted preemption law passed so it wouldn’t have to worry about local ordinances popping up all over the state. For example, if the city of Kingsport passed a law regulating the use of tobacco products, the ordinance would violate state law and be invalid. This in essence handicaps all Tennessee municipalities from exercising local control of tobacco products.

Our state is one of the few remaining preemption states as of September 2018, joining a contingent of holdouts: Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. This is especially problematic as preemptive provisions in state law can prevent the local adoption of evidence-based policies in certain areas, such as smoking on municipal property and public places; tobacco advertising; and youth access to tobacco products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the strongest, most innovative tobacco control policies have originated at the local level before eventually being adopted at the state level. For example, comprehensive smoke-free laws prohibiting smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and bars were initially adopted by local jurisdictions, beginning in the 1990s, before being adopted by numerous states. Simply stated, preemption laws have proven to be impediments to the diffusion of successful policy intervention.

Healthy Kingsport continues to work alongside state legislators to make incremental gains toward moving our state away from preemption toward local control, where local governments have the authority to decide where tobacco products may be used. Historic legislation, championed by Sen. Jon Lundberg and signed into law by Gov. Haslam on July 1, 2016, gave municipalities in Sullivan and Davidson counties the authority to ban smoking on municipal properties where a swimming pool or amphitheater exists.

While this legislation was not as broad in scope as the initial bill, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Lundberg continues to champion this cause as he introduced local control bills in 2017 and 2018, which were ultimately defeated.

You can be assured that Healthy Kingsport will continue to work toward influencing policy at the state level while simultaneously activating local businesses and organizations to create tobacco-free campuses and spaces. To date, Healthy Kingsport has encouraged 77 organizations (with 800 associated campuses) employing approximately 43,000 people to join our important effort. Visit healthykingsport.org to learn how to engage with this crucial initiative.

Kandy Childress is the executive director of Healthy Kingsport. She can be reached at [email protected] healthykingsport.org .

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