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TN Dept. of Correction spends thousands on smoking lounges

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Tennessee passed a smoking ban in 2007 that made smoking in public almost extinct, but one state department spent your tax dollars to build two smoking lounges.

From a legal standpoint, the smoking ban only applies to the inside of buildings, but many government agencies and businesses implemented even stiffer policies that prohibited smoking anywhere on their property.

Now, one of those departments has elected to reinstate smoking at just one facility, and that has a lot of state workers crying foul.

The Tennessee Correction Academy has been smoke-free for nearly six years.

"Everyone was mad about this, because - again - what makes the academy so special that they can smoke and we can't?" asked a correction officer who asked not to be identified.

The officer said the Department of Correction spent thousands of tax dollars to build not one but two structures just for smoking.

"It probably wouldn't have been so bad if they had just gone out, blocked off a place in the grass and said, 'This is a designated smoking area.' But the fact that they actually poured concrete and then raised fencing to go around this - not to mention the patio furniture - that money could have been spent elsewhere. It really could have," the officer said.

In a written statement, Deputy Commissioner Chuck Taylor said the smoking policy was changed at the academy due to safety concerns. He said, "Employees had been leaving the campus to stand near a busy highway and smoke."

The officer disputes that claim.

"In the past five years, I have never once seen anyone congregating in the street," the officer said.

A memo sent out by Superintendent Gerald McAlister said, "In no way does the policy change suggest or infer that the department or the academy support the use of tobacco. In fact, we strongly encourage TDOC employees not to use tobacco."

But local cancer survivors like Bill Pressly say that simply doesn't add up.

"Oh, it sends out a message, and it's contrary to what they say. Their position is that they don't want to encourage, well, if that's the case, they wouldn't have built these patios," he said.

Pressly said he's worried this could be a sign that Tennessee has lost its momentum when it comes to positive change against the dangers of smoking.

"I'm just appalled that we've taken this step backwards," he said. "It just seems like the wrong direction for our great state to be going."

The Channel 4 I-Team asked the department how much it spent to construct the pair of designated smoking areas. Maintenance workers say it cost $10,000, but we are still awaiting official word.

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