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Where there's smoke … there’s fired up doctors pushing lawmakers to make Mississippi a smoke-free state

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the sake of good health, a campaign against smoking is being waged across the country. Members of the Mississippi State Medical Association have joined that fight with Physicians for a Smoke-Free Mississippi Campaign. They hope to improve the state’s statistics which currently are lagging behind other states in the number of smoke-free communities and the still-high number of smokers.

“We still have 25 percent of Mississippi residents who smoke, and that’s high nationally,” said Steve Demetropoulos, M.D., who’s chairing the campaign. “We’re behind other states and we’re a poor state. That means all of us pay for the effects of smoking.”

The physicians group is circulating petitions that will be presented to the State Legislature in January. Mississippians signing these petitions are stating their preference for a smoke-free state.

“MSMA’s physicians are behind the effort, encouraging staff, patients and visitors to sign petitions showing support of a statewide ban on smoking,” said Claude Brunson, M.D. and MSMA president. “Mississippians have already supported smoking bans in over 80 cities and towns, signifying the state is on its way to joining close to 40 other states in becoming totally smoke free.”

Demetropoulos, a former MSMA president and board member, says the physicians hope to have 10,000 signatures, but the petitions are mostly symbolic. A specific number of signatures is not necessary for the legislature to call for a referendum. “Still, we’d like to have as many as we can get to present to the legislature,” he said. “It’s a tangible representation of Mississippi people who want smoke-free air. We will present it to the legislature and say ‘these are your constituents and they want to have a referendum allowing them to vote on this issue.’”

A similar measure has been bogged down in a legislative committee for 10 years even though research done by Mississippi State University shows that 84 percent of the state’s residents are for smoke-free air. That figure has grown from 76 percent to 84 percent in only three years, according to Demetropoulos.

“Legislators are concerned about telling people what to do with their own businesses, and there are some interests — such as casinos and tobacco companies — who don’t want smoke-free air,” he said. “We already monitor food and water for health reasons, and we’d like the legislature to allow residents to vote in the 2015 election cycle.”

An emergency room physician in Pascagoula for 27 years, Demetropoulos became vitally interested in the smoke-free campaign through a patient a few years ago. “The patient is a single mom who works in a Waffle House; that was before Pascagoula went smoke free,” he said. “She didn’t smoke but in a heavily contaminated environment she was having health problems. She liked her job and didn’t want to quit. That case galvanized my interest.”
Even though Demetropoulos is pleased with the number of cities that have gone smoke free, he feels more is needed. “We have many major cities across the state that are now smoke free, but if we get 100 percent of towns and cities covered, we’ll still have only about 45 percent of residents covered because Mississippi is a rural state,” he said. “That’s why a statewide ban is needed.”

The physicians are hoping for a smoking ban in restaurants, bars and other in-door work places. MSMA conducted a survey of 995 restaurant owners statewide with almost unanimous support for smoke-free air. “Some business owners say if the playing field is level, they don’t mind,” Demetropoulos said.
At this point, he says, the bad effects of smoking are so well documented for smokers and second hand smoke that there should be no need to convince anyone to go the smoke-free route. “That’s what’s so hard, but still we have trouble getting people to accept it,” he said. “We can put a law in place at no cost and immediately see good results. We’re a state without a lot of extra resources to spend on health issues so this referendum just makes sense.”
Petitions are available at medical offices and clinics and hospitals throughout the state.

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