Public health efforts pay off with legislative wins in the 84th Texas Legislature
By Joey Berlin
The Texas Public Health Coalition and diligent physicians earned significant victories during the 84th Texas Legislature in their drive to reduce tobacco and electronic cigarette use.
Lawmakers also provided the Texas Department of State Health Services with a likely bump in chronic disease prevention funding, and an effort to keep children’s immunization records in the state registry through their early adult years made its way into law.
TPHC entered the session with five categories of priorities:
- Get Texas moving and eating healthy;
- Vaccinations are important for all Texans;
- Texas must be a leader in cancer prevention and research;
- Reduce the toll of tobacco in Texas; and
- Reduce preventable injuries.
House Bill 1, the budget bill for the 2016-17 biennium, addressed several items on TPHC’s agenda, including the coalition’s pledge to preserve and support expanded funding for chronic disease prevention.
A rider to the budget ties potential funds for that aim to federal funding in response to last year’s Ebola scare. If DSHS receives more than $20.27 million in federal funding related to Ebola prevention, planning, and treatment during 2016-17, the department will transfer an equal amount of general revenue toward strategies for public health preparedness, chronic disease prevention, and tobacco cessation. DSHS will allocate those funds as it sees fit toward pediatric asthma management, potentially preventable adult hospitalizations, expanded tobacco prevention services, diabetes prevention, and funding for the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force.
Also on the tobacco front, TPHC scored another win with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s Senate Bill 97. The coalition emphasized supporting the prevention of youth access to e-cigarettes, and S.B. 97 makes it a crime to sell e-cigarettes to someone younger than 18 or to someone who intends to give e-cigarettes to a minor, just as it’s illegal to do so with regular tobacco products. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the measure into law on May 28.
Sen. Hinojosa, D-McAllen, says e-cigarettes are “a training device” for minors to become adult cigarette users.
“I was somewhat surprised when I was sitting in a non-smoking area in a restaurant, and I saw young people pull out these devices and start blowing vapor, which seemed like smoke,” he said. “And as I did more research, started seeing more minors using these cigarettes, I started inquiring as to the content of the cigarettes. And the contents are very damaging and harmful to the health of minors.”
The Legislature and Gov. Abbott also addressed one of TPHC’s vaccination priorities with the approval of House Bill 2171. The measure by Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gainesville, allows a person’s childhood immunization records to stay in the ImmTrac database until they reach age 26 if the person’s parents consented before they turned 18. ImmTrac currently keeps childhood immunization records until a person turns 18.
Measures addressing TPHC priorities that didn’t make it to Gov. Abbott’s desk included House Bills 2474 and 80. Rep. Sheffield introduced H.B. 2474, which would have required school districts and campuses to provide de-identified information to requesting parents about immunization exemptions in the school or district. Parents would have been able to obtain such information as the number of students in their child’s school whose vaccinations aren’t current, the number claiming vaccination exemptions for religious reasons, and the number claiming exemptions for medical reasons. The bill passed the House by a 98-40 vote but died in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed H.B. 80 to implement a statewide ban on texting while driving. TPHC threw its support behind H.B. 80, which contained language exempting drivers who text in stopped vehicles and those who do so for emergency purposes or to report illegal activity. The bill stalled in the Senate State Affairs Committee after the House passed it by a 104-39 vote.
Texas is one of just four states that don’t have a complete prohibition on texting and driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.