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Sullivan businesses pledge to go tobacco-free by 2008

Rick Wagner • Apr 25, 2007 at 12:03 PM

BLOUNTVILLE - The number of tobacco-free workplaces in and around Sullivan County continues to grow.

However, Tri-Cities Healthcare Forum officials want to cast a broader net in removing smoked and smokeless tobacco from workplaces in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

At a news conference Tuesday morning at Northeast State Technical Community College, the forum announced that Electro-Mechanical Corp. in Bristol, Tenn., SBS Services in Piney Flats, Strongwell in Bristol, Va., Sullivan County government, Triad Packaging in Bristol, Tenn., and Wexford House in Kingsport are among businesses that have implemented or are working toward implementing a tobacco-free workplace by January 2008.

Dr. Donald Guadagnoli, chief executive officer of Highlands Wellmont Health Network, said the forum coordinated by the network he heads invites all businesses and governments in the region to join the group.

"Tobacco use kills," said Guadagnoli. "We want to stop that from happening."

The tobacco-free workplaces initiative began in 2003 when Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance went tobacco-free. Guadagnoli said the Highlands Wellmont Health Network and Wellmont Physician Services also went tobacco-free.

Guadagnoli said lung cancer is the leading cause of death in male and female cancer patients, and 87 percent of lung cancer deaths are tied to tobacco use.

He said tobacco use also can help cause or hasten heart attacks and strokes, and higher health care costs in this region hurt the region's economic vitality.

Mary Lee Williams, manager of human resources for Electro-Mechanical, said eight years of data the company commissioned shows tobacco use increases health costs. The company started a "kick the habit" campaign for employees.

"Earlier this year we did go to a smoke-free facility throughout the corporation," said Williams, who said her mother died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and had smoked.

Aside from economic benefits, Williams said the company wants to encourage a better quality of life for employees, their families and the region.

In a news release, Electro-Mechanical Chief Financial Officer Roger Leonard said Wellmont found tobacco usage was the No. 1 health risk to his company's employees and families. Williams also said he has quit using tobacco, something he started at 14.

Lee Shillito, president and chief executive officer of Triad Packaging, said the Bristol operation and headquarters will be the beta test for a tobacco-free policy planned for operations in Alabama and North Carolina.

"The benefits are obvious, even to our addicted tobacco users," Shillito said.

After the news conference, Guadagnoli said employers are left to handle the details as they see fit. He said some provide designated smoking areas outside the workplace, while others, like Wellmont, limit tobacco use on Wellmont property to inside private vehicles.

MSHA spokesman James Watson in a phone interview said the same holds true with MSHA's tobacco policy.

Sullivan County Commissioner Sam Jones said the policy has worked well since the commission approved it in November, adding that few employees in the old courthouse go outside to smoke.

Eastman Chemical Co., the region's largest private employer, is not on the list, but spokeswoman Betty Payne said Eastman allows smoking in designated areas outside.

To join the forum's tobacco-free pledge program or for more information, call the Highlands Wellmont Health Network at 844-4175.

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