OUR OPINION: Smoking report shows divide based on income

Mississippi’s statewide efforts and struggles in urging residents to adopt healthier life practices have met with limited but significant success, including a reduction in the obesity rate among children, but in other areas like smoking cessation the results are mixed and challenging.

The New York Times reported in a front-page article last week that smoking increasingly is a health problem and high risk among the poor and working class in the U.S., and the statistics for Mississippi suggest that conclusion is valid in our state, too.

The study cited in the Times’ reporting places Mississippi statewide above the national averages in the period from 1996 to 2012:

• In 1996, 27 percent of Mississippians smoked, compared to 25 percent in 2012, but the nation had dropped to 20 percent overall by 2012.

• Smoking in Lee County was placed at 31 percent in 1996 and 29 percent in 2012.

• Marshall County (Holly Springs) reported an overall increase in smokers, from 34 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 2012.

Until the mid-1960s, when the dangers became clear, high school and college graduates smoked at about the same rates, but since then the rate has declined much more rapidly among college graduates.

The report, “Cigarette smoking prevalence in US counties: 1996-2012,” was published by the University of Washington, based on federal data.

“When smoking first swept the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, it took hold among the well-to-do. … By the 1960s, smoking had exploded, helped by the distribution of cigarettes to soldiers in World War II. Half of all men and a third of women smoked,” the Times reported.

Many Mississippians remember the era of heaviest, widespread smoking.

“(A)s evidence of smoking’s deadly consequences has accumulated, the broad patterns of use by class have shifted: Smoking, the leading cause of preventable death in the country, is now increasingly a habit of the poor and the working class,” the Times article said.

The growing gap in smoking rates between rich and poor drives deadly, unfortunate and preventable inequality in health outcomes.

Mississippi has a strong smoking cessation program, and if adequately funded it produces results, especially paired in joint efforts with entities like the University of Mississippi Medical Center, other hospitals and in various health-promotion programs.

Not smoking is the key decision in avoiding many illnesses and smoking-induced death. That point must be driven home as unvarnished fact.