The annual report grades states and the federal government on policies proven to prevent and reduce tobacco use. While Tennessee has taken some significant steps to reduce tobacco use in the past, like raising taxes on tobacco products, the association said “elected officials must do more to save lives and ensure all Tennessee residents benefit.”
“Nationwide, smoking rates have continued to decline to historically low levels, yet tobacco use remains the nation’s leading cause of preventable death and disease killing over 480,000 Americans each year,” American Lung Association in Tennessee’s Director of Advocacy Heather Wehrheim said in a recent press release. “Tobacco use is a serious addiction, and the fact that 26.8 percent of Tennessee residents are current smokers highlights how much work remains to be done in our communities to prevent and reduce tobacco use.”
The association said Gov. Bill Haslam and the state legislature need to enact what they say are proven policies that aim to reduce tobacco use and secondhand smoke in public establishments.
The American Lung Association in Tennessee also called on lawmakers to repeal laws preempting local smoke-free ordinances and making sure all cessation treatments are covered under Medicaid and private insurance plans.
In the report, Tennessee received an F for funding for prevention programs, level of state tobacco taxes, coverage and access to services to quit and not having a minimum age of 21 to buy tobacco products. The state received a C for its smoke-free workplace laws, according to the report.
Dr. Hadii Mamudu, an East Tennessee State University associate professor of public health who has done extensive research on tobacco policies, said there has not been much legislative progress since former Gov. Phil Bredesen raised taxes on cigarettes. This slow legislative progress in other areas of concern, according to Mamudu, contributes to the fact that more than a quarter of Tennessean adults still smoke, despite lower numbers in other states.
“If you look at the tobacco taxes when they were passed — when they were raised from 20 cents to 60 cents under Governor Bredesen — that was an advancement,” he said. “When it was passed, it bumped Tennessee to a B+ in terms of the taxes. Since then, there hasn’t been any significant changes in policies.”
Overall, Mamudu said the report was a fair assessment of what’s happening in Tennessee, based on his research.
While he said health officials throughout the state continue to do what they can to encourage quitting tobacco and promoting prevention, he said state lawmakers still need to raise tobacco taxes, increase the minimum age and adequately fund programs that help people quit tobacco and prevent Tennesseans from picking up the habit in the first place.
Some local smokers, like Hazel Watts, agree that more needs to be done to help smokers quit but disagree on the issue of higher taxes.
“I don't think it's any surprise that Tennessee has both a high rate of smoking and a high rate of poverty. Most people — myself included — start smoking out of stress. Further regressive taxes that make the poor poorer aren't going to fix our health problem. Access to public health care, addiction treatment and generally lifting people out of poverty will,” Watts said.
The American Lung Association report did give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention an A for its recent informational campaign against tobacco use, “Tips From Former Smokers.” Still, the organization said Tennessee’s poor tobacco control grade is part of a larger national problem that goes up to the federal level.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration significantly weakened its ‘deeming’ rule, which gave FDA's Center for Tobacco Products authority over e-cigarettes, cigars, hookah and other previously unregulated tobacco products,” the organization wrote in a recent news release. “In July, FDA announced it would delay full implementation of the rule by more than four years. This earned the federal government an ‘F’ grade for FDA regulation of tobacco products this year.”