Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all far more prevalent in Northeast Mississippi and the rest of the state than in the nation as a whole.
While the state’s acute poverty and other cultural factors contribute, health officials say the single most important element in Mississippi’s poor health status is tobacco. Reduce smoking and the state’s health will improve. Reduce exposure to secondhand smoke and there will also be benefits.
To that end, State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier and Mississippi Medical Association President Dr. Steve Demetropoulos recently held a news conference at the state Capitol calling for a statewide ban on smoking in indoor public gathering places.
A few years ago, this would have been an unrealistic and unachievable goal. But since 2006, some 68 Mississippi municipalities have adopted local ordinances prohibiting smoking in restaurants and other public buildings. Most wouldn’t go back to the way it was before.
The first of these ordinances passed in Starkville, Tupelo, Oxford and other Northeast Mississippi locales. Warnings of significant lost business for restaurants and other establishments haven’t materialized, but the atmosphere in those places has improved. Initial evidence shows reduced heart disease rates in cities that have adopted smoking bans.
Research is conclusive that secondhand smoke is harmful to those who passively breathe it. Even when smokers are segregated, there are health risks to the nonsmokers in the same general vicinity.
Much was made of the “rights” of smokers in the initial debates over municipal ordinances, but no one has the right to force others to breath toxic air in a public place. Smoking ordinances don’t keep people from smoking, just from inflicting the health risks they voluntarily assume on those who have chosen not to take on such risks.
The value of a statewide ordinance is a uniform approach to what is clearly a public health issue. Dr. Currier put it this way: “We think our rural citizens have a right to smoke-free air as well.”
Seventy-percent of Mississippians support a statewide ban on smoking in public places, according to a Mississippi State University poll. It’s worked in 68 cities. Health officials think it’s the most important single policy action we can take for our collective health.
Why not get it done?