Doctors push for statewide smoking ban

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi doctors want to convince legislators to put a statewide smoking ban on the ballot.

Eighty-six Mississippi cities have adopted smoke-free ordinances. That covers about 25 percent of the state's population. But Pascagoula doctor Steve Demetropolous, immediate past president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, says smoke-free rules in cities aren't enough.

"Because Mississippi is a predominantly rural state, even if we have every community in the state covered, we'll only have about 45% of the state covered," he said.

The medical association has attempted, unsuccessfully, to prod lawmakers into passing a statewide smoking ban. That's why they're now hoping to gather enough signatures to convince legislators to take the issue directly to voters.

State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, a member of the Senate Public Health Committee, introduced bill in the Senate last session.

He said he's in favor of improving the health of all Mississippians but, "I am hesitant to force regulations on to private businesses. So what the state medical association is doing by taking it to the people is a good thing."

Surveys by the medical association have found wide support for smoke-free laws. But there's likely to be pushback from some bars and restaurants, as well as from some of the 25 percent of Mississippians who smoke.

John Rabalais of Pass Christian, for example, believes a ban would be bad for businesses and unfair to smokers.

"When we going to outlaw McDonald's — look what that does to you, but that's all right," he says. "How do you like breathing in the gas fumes when you fill up your car, you think that doesn't harm you? One of the things wrong with everything around anymore is that if 'I don't do it, you can't do it.' That's what's happening to society right now."

Demetropolous said studies show the dangers of secondhand smoke and argues there are already regulations to protect the public's food and water; a smoke-free ordinance, he said does the same thing for the air.

"We think this is the single-most important thing we can do to improve the health of our fellow Mississippians," he said. "And the important thing is that it doesn't cost us any money, and something that, if we flip the switch tomorrow, you can automatically start seeing decreases in heart attacks, strokes, COPD, asthma and pneumonia."

The medical association is hoping to gather at least 20,000 signatures, through petitions in doctor's offices and other places, to show legislators the level of support.

Under state law, after registering a ballot initiative with the secretary of state's office, the official ballot title and summary are prepared by the attorney general's office. Initiatives are only valid for one year, during which time a petition must be circulated to gather signatures to place the measure on the next statewide general election ballot.

According to state law, for an initiative measure to be placed on the ballot, a minimum of 107,216 certified signatures must be gathered with at least 21,443 certified signatures from each of the five congressional districts as they existed in the year 2000. Signatures must be certified by county circuit clerks. A completed petition is filed with the secretary of state's office.

Not only must an initiative receive a majority of the total votes cast, it must also receive more than 40 percent of the total votes cast in that election.

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Information from: WMPN-FM, http://etv.state.ms.us/

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