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Tennessee editorial roundup

May 15, 2019

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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May 11

Johnson City Press on a Master Settlement Agreement for opioids:

Using similar practices of neglect and deception coined by tobacco companies in their heyday, pharmaceutical companies that make and market opioids have racked up a body count and addiction rates that, while not as deadly as tobacco use, affect the health of our community just as deeply.

Of the 47,600 people in the U.S. who fatally overdosed on prescription and illicit opioids in 2017, 1,269 of them were Tennesseans. The domestic death toll linked to widespread opioid abuse has grown to more than 200,000 since 1999.

While legislators, law enforcement agencies and health professionals nationwide struggle to treat the symptoms of drug abuse devastating our society, the cause of the infection has been left relatively untouched.

As reports mounted showing widespread abuse and addiction rates of the prescription painkillers originally marketed by drug manufacturers as impossible to abuse, top company executives downplayed the public health risks and doubled down on intense direct-to-physician marketing campaigns.

A study published by researchers at the Boston Medical Center earlier this year found a strong correlation between the amount of money spent by drug companies marketing opioids to doctors, the number of opioids those doctors prescribed and the deaths in those locations caused by prescription opioid overdoses.

When the evidence grew too great for these companies to deny, efforts to re-cap the seemingly bottomless pill bottle and reduce overprescribing gave way to a rise in abuse of illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

While users died and families were shredded, pharmaceutical companies raked in billions. While HIV and hepatitis infections were transmitted by needle-sharing, well-paid spokesmen blamed addicts. While families and communities paid the costs of treatment, company executives denied responsibility.

Past precedent, however, may provide some solutions to help public institutions ease the burdens of treatment and hold drug companies responsible for misdeeds.

In 1998, faced with civil lawsuits from 46 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, domestic tobacco companies agreed to the largest settlement in the nation’s history.

Through the Master Settlement Agreement, the companies that had for years marketed their products as safe despite contrasting evidence, agreed to pay billions annually to help with costs of treatment for smoking-related illnesses. They also agreed to restrictions on tobacco product marketing.

Though many say the new revenue from the settlement was not properly applied to efforts to curb tobacco use by the receiving states, the same idea could apply to today’s opioid epidemic.

Hundreds of counties, municipalities and states have already filed suits against opioid manufacturers and marketers seeking damages for skyrocketing abuse rates.

If district attorneys continue their efforts to hold these pharmaceutical companies responsible for the havoc they created, needed addiction treatment programs could be funded and meaningful regulations, like forbidding direct-to-physician marketing, could be enacted.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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May 11

The Greeneville Sun on open meetings:

Greeneville’s government deserves some recognition for its willingness to back up and do something the right way after initially mis-stepping and violating state law this week.

As we reported on Wednesday, when the Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted on the appointee to replace former longtime Alderman Sarah Webster, it did so using paper ballots, as prescribed by its charter. But those ballots did not identify who voted for whom.

State law clearly prohibits local governments from taking secret votes or secret ballots on any matter.

A member of the news staff here at The Greeneville Sun spotted the issue Wednesday morning, and our reporting followed suit. After a few phone calls with town officials, they decided by Thursday morning to schedule a new vote on the issue for the next regular board meeting on May 21.

Two items are worth noting about the episode.

First, after the Sun raised the issue, town officials ultimately decided to hold a new vote. Doing so is the right thing, but many government officials in many places are not so open to the constructive criticism we aimed to offer.

We never thought the BMA or Mayor W.T. Daniels, who presided over the meeting, were trying to flaunt the state’s Open Meetings Act. It appeared to be a change in usual voting protocol that probably that resulted in an unintentional oversight of the Open Meetings Act’s particularities. Still, it’s our job to point out such things to our elected officials, and we take that responsibility seriously (more on that shortly). And as a general rule, we want all elected officials to take Open Meetings Act issues as seriously as we do.

But since the inception of Sunshine Laws in Tennessee and elsewhere, plenty of public officials statewide do all they can to skirt around the transparency codified in such laws. Not so here in this case, and for that we commend the board.

The second notable aspect of this episode: It may seem a small thing, but this is why having an independent and thriving press is vital for each community in this country. Greene County is no different.

To our knowledge, the Sun was the only institution or individual to publicly raise a question about how the vote was handled. For decades, newspapers and other media have been the watchdogs on our elected officials and often stand in the breach between how public business is conducted and the transparency with which it needs to be conducted.

While this was a relatively minor episode, one principle animated our actions: Each citizen has the right to know how his or her elected representatives vote on any given issue. Replacing a member of the BMA is no different.

This situation was minor. The next one may not be. But for each one, our job is to record the facts, report them to you and safeguard the public’s right to know. That last responsibility falls to each of us individually, not just journalists.

To do our job, though, we need the constant support of our readers and advertisers. We’re grateful to all those who allow us to do that job, which will always be to serve this community by shining a light on where we need it most: our home.

Online: https://www.greenevillesun.com/

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May 12

Bristol Herald Courier on renaming the region:

Local leaders are on the hunt for a way to rename the region as a tool to draw new residents and businesses into the area — finding a new name for what is essentially Ballad Health’s footprint.

Nearly 50 people have been meeting for more than a year, seeking to develop a more descriptive, appealing name for an area loosely defined as stretching from Morristown eastward to the coalfields, including roughly 16 counties of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Fueled by key company representative from Eastman Chemical Co., Ballad Health and business leaders like Scott Niswonger, CEO of Forward Air and Landair Corp., and Bill Greene Jr., from Bank of Tennessee, the group has picked up the support of all three Tri-Cities chambers of commerce and a number of city and county officials, according to Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber.

The problem is that the group seems to be all talk — and almost no action.

During a meeting with the Bristol Herald Courier’s Editorial Board, a few of the group’s main players sat down to discuss their overall plan. But the meeting was met with clichés and dead ends as the group is still discussing many aspects of the renaming.

Outside of hoping to have a name for the effort by July, the group is still in the planning stages of the nitty, gritty details involved in creating a new identity for what is now referred to as the “Tri-Cities.”

For us, the name suggestions for the region are lackluster, and the fact that after a year of discussions the group couldn’t supply a better list of options doesn’t seem very reassuring for the more intricate details of this process.

There may be one too many irons in the fire and we’re worried that plans created before these efforts — that have a more solid ground — will be pushed to the wayside. Plans like the Bristol 2040 Visioning process can’t be thrown out in favor of changing a regional name that may or may not prove to be a successful marketing plan for economic development. We hope our city officials remember that.

One thing that we are on board with in this new effort is the can-do attitude of Mike Quillen, the chairman of the Go Virginia Region One Council.

During the Bristol Chamber’s First Friday Business Briefing, Quillen laid out a well-planned map on how to remove unnecessary bureaucracy and get unemployed coal workers back in the workforce.

We think he’s on the right track. In fact, we believe that building a well-trained workforce to attract more economic development may be a better use of the “if you build it they will come” logic than building shell buildings that sit empty for years to come or pouring money into regional renaming efforts that might fizzle out.

We support regionalism, and we hope this group’s efforts are successful. We just think more care and oversight may be necessary to avoid years of talk with no successful movement.

And as far as naming the region goes, we believe one name has been left off the final selections: Holston Valley.

The name Holston already has deep roots throughout much of the region: Holston River, Holston Mountain, Holston Defense, South Holston Dam, Holston High School, Holston Valley Hospital. It would resonate with residents and would offer a wide view of all the region already has to offer, from scenic views to health care.

But that’s just our opinion. And we wish this group the best of luck in the rest of their planning.

Online: https://www.heraldcourier.com/