JACKSON — Having failed to persuade lawmakers to ban smoking in public places, the Mississippi State Medical Association now wants lawmakers to put the question to voters.
The association, which represents Mississippi’s 4,700 physicians, announced this week it will gather petition signatures in doctors’ offices asking the 2015 Legislature to set a referendum.
“We hope we get 100,000 people or maybe 50,000 people,” said Dr. Steve Demetropoulos of Pascagoula, immediate past president of the association. “We’re doing this to demonstrate support at a greater level than we have in the past.”
It’s not a petition campaign to force an election on a state constitutional amendment, which would require more than 100,000 signatures of registered voters, but an effort to persuade lawmakers to call a vote on their own.
Indoor smoking bans have failed multiple times in the Mississippi Legislature, although 84 Mississippi towns and cities have passed them. Fewer than 25 percent of Mississippians are covered by smoke-free workplace laws, according to the medical association.
Proposed bans would typically cover public buildings, workplaces, bars and restaurants. Casinos could also be covered, although that has been a point of particular debate.
In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 24 percent of Mississippi adults are smokers, tied for the sixth-highest rate among the 50 states. Nationwide, 19.6 percent of adults were smokers, with the lowest rate in Utah, where 10.6 percent were.
State Health Officer Mary Currier has said a smoking ban could quickly cut heart disease and heart attacks by 25 percent statewide.
“This is the single most important thing we can do to improve the health of Mississippians,” Demetropolous said.
But some lawmakers are loath to interfere with the rights of business owners to regulate their own property.
“I don’t like to play Big Brother,” Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told Mississippi Public Broadcasting in 2013. “I don’t like looking over people’s shoulder and telling them what to do and what not to do when they are only hurting themselves and not hurting other people.”
Demetropolous said that polling conducted for the association shows that support among Mississippians for an indoor smoking ban is rising. He noted that similar opposition to requiring seat belts once flourished in Mississippi, and few publicly oppose that law now.
“Momentum is building,” he said. “We’ve just got to get our legislators caught up with public opinion.”