By Sheila Byrd / The Associated Press
This fall, the Mississippi Department of Health begins airing television and radio spots about the dangers of secondhand smoke, months before lawmakers likely file bills related to the issue.
State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier said “as a public health agency we would support a policy to protect Mississippians from the very real dangers of secondhand smoke.”
She said her agency is currently focused on the awareness campaign, called Smokefree Air Mississippi. The state is using $1.8 million in funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an educational campaign, said Liz Sharlot, a spokesman for the agency.
“We are hoping at some point, there will be public policy that will support smoke-free air in public places,” Sharlot said. “How you make that a reality, that hasn’t been defined yet.”
Around the country, momentum has been building for no-smoking laws. Officials with the American Lung Association say 27 states have passed laws that ban smoking in all public places and workplaces, including bars and restaurants.
That doesn’t count the numerous cities across the country that have passed local ordinances, including 35 municipalities in Mississippi.
As far any statewide ban, House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has been a major obstacle. He’s blocked similar legislation for several years. Holland said he’s aware of the hazards of smoking.
“I have a little bit of a problem with a statewide ban,” he said. “I like the way the municipalities do it on an individual basis. Historically, I’ve never let the committee vote on it. If you want to smoke, by God, smoke.”
Lawmakers budged a bit this past year. Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, signed into a law a bill that bans smoking within 100 feet of a facility where people under age 18 are participating in athletic events.
The law also bans smoking at indoor youth sporting events.
Violations range from a warning to fines of up to $150.
“We’ve banned just about everything. I didn’t like it when we banned tobacco at Mississippi games. All of that is bad, but it’s part of our culture,” Holland said. “That’s not to say 2011 won’t be the year.”
About 80 percent of Mississippi residents don’t smoke, Sharlot said. But those who light up contribute to some other grim statistics provided by the agency: 5,250 premature deaths each year and 550 nonsmokers’ deaths.
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent over the years educating residents about smoking risks. The state was once a national model for its tobacco prevention programs through the efforts of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a private, nonprofit group headed by former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore.
The Partnership used to receive $20 million annually as part of the state’s share of a lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s. Barbour successfully fought to end payments in 2007 and have the money go directly to the state to be divided among various programs.
Some believe a statewide law should be the next step in Mississippi’s tobacco fight.
Thomas Carr, manager of national policy for the American Lung Association, said research shows the laws have a slight impact on smoking prevention.
“Smoke-free laws have a less potent effect than a cigarette tax increase or a cessation program, but they still encourage people to quit smoking,” Carr said. “Calls to quit lines usually increase after the laws take effect.”