Coalitions in Action: Tennessee Coalition Makes a Powerful Impact in their Community

A coalition in Putnam County, Tennessee, has reduced smoking, underage drinking, and medicine abuse by using the Power of Putnam.

A five-year evaluation of the coalition’s Partnerships for Success project showed marked improvement in substance use amongst high school students:

  • Smokeless tobacco use decreased from 11.9 percent in 2013 to 6.8 in 2015.
  • Cigarette use decreased from 11.2 percent in 2013 to 10.5 in 2015.
  • Alcohol use decreased from 19.8 percent in 2013 to 16.7 in 2015.
  • Binge drinking decreased from 15.6 percent in 2013 to 9.4 in 2015.
  • Prescription drug use to get high decreased from 3.9 percent in 2013 to 3.8 in 2015.

Power of Putnam Coalition Director Bill Gibson, a former police officer and District Attorney General, decided that he wanted to prevent the problems that often led to punishment. He became the head of the coalition in 2010.

When the coalition helped its public housing complex become smoke-free, it was a lesson in patience. Not everyone bought into the idea, at first.

“But if you scatter those seeds, eventually, they will sprout,” Gibson said.

The coalition’s youth group has been a force of inspiration behind Power of Putnam’s success. There is a vetting process for each student, complete with an application, formal interview with adult coalition leaders, an essay and recommendations.

The youth met with Assistant Director Jennifer Matthews to brainstorm about its participation in the national campaign Kick Butts Day. The youth members took it a step further, after collecting bags of butts, and decided to create 10 smoke-free parks.

Youth Thrive Ambassador Samantha Clark demonstrated the effects of smoking on real pig lungs at the coalition’s back-to-school bash in which more than 6,000 people attended. The youth coalition even held a design contest and the city adopted the top two youth-designed signs to advise others of the new smoke-free parks.

Matthews said, “When we meet with our youth, we want it to be youth-driven, and although we lead them in the right direction, we want them to go with it. When we went to the city council, they could have heard from (Gibson) and me, but hearing from the youth had a bigger impact.”

To address medicine abuse, the coalition placed secure medicine lock boxes in more than 100 homes and maintains two permanent drug disposal sites. With their law enforcement partners, Power of Putnam has collected and destroyed more than 2,500 pounds of unused prescription drugs through secure disposal sites and quarterly take-back programs.

Partnerships with the law enforcement sector in both their police and sheriff’s departments aided the coalition in its effective assessment of 49 compliance checks with retailers. When the coalition’s undercover youth assessed that a few were not following the law and selling to minors, they worked with Sheriff Eddie Farris to issue citations. (Farris is also a member of the coalition.) The businesses that sold to the underage coalition volunteers were told about an optional alcohol education class presented by the Power of Putnam. The responsible beverage sales and service class is available to any store or bar owner. The coalition also recognized compliant businesses in their local newspaper and radio station.

“Our goal is to visit and educate all retailers in our city and county,” Matthews said.

The coalition has also implemented a multi-faceted approach to prevention by forming a medical coalition of mostly retired doctors to address prescribing practices and the standard of care in prescribing painkillers. Its assessment revealed gaps such as that most primary care doctors surveyed reported having no or little professional training on addiction. This led to a series of professional trainings on addiction and treatment. The study was published in a state medical journal. 

The Power of Putnam was able to influence a resolution calling on the Tennessee Medical Association to advocate for a bill to require overdose deaths to be cross-referenced to prescribers in the controlled substance database.

“This is to identify prescribers that are responsible for multiple overdose deaths for scrutiny by their licensing agency,” Gibson said.

Any way to get the coalition’s messages out to their community is a good idea, Gibson said, even that means getting on a soapbox, literally.

The coalition recently sponsored a vehicle in their community soap box derby that was decorated with prevention messaging.

The community is receiving the message.

Just like their name, it is the power of the people of Putnam who are making it happen, Gibson said.

“Our sectors have a lot of participation and people really care about making our community better. This is the profession where you can get ahead of the problem and make a difference,” he added.