Legislators Skeptical of Haslam’s ‘Health and Wellness Initiative’

Some legislators voiced skepticism about a $72.4 million “health and wellness initiative,” a portion of Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget that was reviewed in full for the first time on Tuesday.
The plan includes $43 million for an anti-smoking and anti-obsesity efforts. Most of that will go to programs targeting teenagers, pregnant women and women with infant children.
About $5 million goes to the obesity program with officials saying they hope to enhance the state money with $20 million to $27 million in private sector donations.
The administration is also counting $24 million for converting the University of Tennessee’s coal-fired steam plant to use natural gas as part of the “health and wellness initiative.”
The project was announced earlier as part of Haslam’s original budget proposal in February. The original proposal was altered somewhat with an amendment outlined Tuesday to the House and Senate Finance Committees.
The coal plant conversion money comes from tobacco company payments being made to the state to resolve lawsuits. Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, questioned the conversion being part of a “health and wellness initiative” as well as involving tobacco money.
“I don’t see the relationship,” he said. “That’s a third of the tobacco settlement money (available to the state next year).”
“The logic behind that is that particular plant in Knoxville is one of the biggest air polluters in the region,” replied Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner, who outlined the initiative to the House Finance Committee with Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes.
The anti-smoking efforts were questioned by House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
“That’s a lot of money and a lot of marketing,” said McCormick, suggesting the state has “some more immediate needs.” He also questioned whether it is necessary to explain the dangers of smoking, when most people are already aware of that – including smokers.
Sargent noted the state had allocated $10 million to an anti-smoking campaign in 2007 and added another $5 million two years later. He questioned whether that expenditure had done anything to reduce smoking among Tennesseans.
Dreyzehner said about 23 percent of Tennesseans smoke, according to most recent statistics, and “the needle has been moving down.” That indicates some anti-smoking efforts have been successful, he said, even though Tennessee’s spending on such programs has lagged far behind other states.
The new initiative will have long-term effect in reducing state spending on health care, he predicted, since it targets teenagers and mothers of small children.

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