OPINION

Tennessee is failing to curb smoking

In 1998, 52 state and territory attorneys general signed a master settlement agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco companies to settle dozens of state lawsuits brought to recover billions of dollars in health care costs associated with treating smoking-related illnesses.

Eventually, more than 45 tobacco companies settled. Under the terms of the settlement, Tennessee and other states receive annual payments that help defray the cost of health care for smoking-related illnesses.

Although the MSA does not require states to spend settlement payments on tobacco control programs, many anti-smoking and health care observers are concerned that states are not using enough of the MSA payments to enhance their tobacco prevention and control efforts.

Among them is Tennessee.

As we recently reported, the state just received an overall failing grade from the American Lung Association for its tobacco control policies.

In its 22nd annual "State of Tobacco Control" report, the association gives Tennessee an "F" for the state government's level of funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, as well as for its efforts to provide access to smoking cessation programs, policies to discourage the sale of flavored tobacco products, and for the amount of taxes the state levies on the sale of tobacco products.

The report also gives Tennessee a grade of "D" for promoting smoke-free spaces.

While state law prohibits smoking in government workplaces, child care facilities and restaurants, it is allowed in private workplaces with three or fewer employees and in restaurants and bars where persons under the age of 21 are not allowed to enter.

Tennessee joined Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states with four "F" grades and one "D" grade.

Given the hundreds of millions of dollars Tennessee has received under the MSA, it is inexcusable that it has failed to meet the full recommendations of the American Lung Association, which include:

Support local comprehensive smoke-free laws covering age-restricted venues that include e-cigarettes.

Increase funding for the state's tobacco prevention and cessation program to $13 million by allocating Juul (e-cigarette) settlement funds that Tennessee will receive over a six-year period. The state should also see that the funds for that program are spent based on the best practices for such comprehensive tobacco control efforts as set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Require all tobacco retail businesses to obtain licenses and make sure that efforts to oversee enforcement measures are sufficiently funded.

The state should also establish a meaningful penalty structure for dealing with underage sales violations.

In 2007, the state finally prohibited smoking in enclosed public places, but that legislation was full of exemptions, including non-enclosed areas of public places, venues that restrict access to persons who are 21 years of age or older, private businesses with three or fewer employees, private clubs, smoking rooms in hotels and motels, retail tobacco stores that prohibit minors, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Last April, Tennessee received its latest annual payment under the MSA, $163.9 million.

To date, the state has received $3.8 billion.

It is well past time more of that money was used as other states are doing to protect children and curb adult smoking.

-- Kingsport Times News. February 3, 2024.

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