Rising smoke: Smoking rates going up in Southeast Missouri

Saturday, October 30, 2010

This story comes from the November issue of Flourish, the Southeast Missourian's magazine for women. For more stories for and about local women, sign up for the monthly e-zine version of Flourish magazine at http://semissourian.com/mail.

Smoking rates are up in Southeast Missouri -- including among teens and pregnant women -- and local health departments admit they're baffled, especially considering the high cost of cigarettes and the huge amount of information available about the dangers of smoking.

"It's an expensive habit in several ways, including the mother's health and the baby's health," said Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, in a June interview with Healthwatch magazine. Robert Hudson, administrator for the Butler County Health Department, suspects the downtrodden economy has led stressed-out residents to fall back on unhealthy vices like smoking.

Bollinger, Butler and Cape Girardeau County are addressing smoking rates with clients of their Women, Infants and Children clinics. The health departments in Scott and Bollinger counties are also using Smokebusters, a statewide program focusing on peer education to prevent smoking.

"Most people addicted to smoking became smokers in their teen years," says Melissa Allen, nutritionist and health educator for the Bollinger County Health Department, adding that the average child tries his first cigarette at age 9. According to Allen, smoking rates in Bollinger County are going up 2 to 3 percent each year, and the county's rates are consistently higher than the state's rates by 4 to 6 percent.

"Unfortunately, once they're addicted, they might know the information and not necessarily change their behavior," says Allen "We all know we need to floss our teeth and eat healthy, but we don't all do it. Smokers are in denial when they're truly addicted, and it's not easy to walk away from. That's why we're focusing on prevention and cessation, because it's not an easy thing."

Thanks in part to students' work with Smokebusters, Zalma High School will become a smoke-free campus on Jan. 1, 2011, and Allen hopes other schools will follow suit. Bollinger County has also partnered with Saint Francis Medical Center to offer Freedom From Smoking classes for locals who want to quit smoking.

Cape Girardeau Breathe Easy is also advocating for change in Southeast Missouri's smoking habits. "The goal of the group is to protect people who are working in public, and the public, from the dangers of secondhand smoke," explains Terry Baker, tobacco prevention project manager at Saint Francis Medical Center and a member of Cape Breathe Easy. Dr. Jeremy Barnes, professor of health promotion at Southeast Missouri State University and another member of Cape Breathe Easy, says the group is still in its planning stages, and is working with local residents and city officials to explore the possibility of establishing a smoke-free city.

"We're constantly fighting it, and young people are still smoking," says Barnes. He and Baker note that smokeless tobacco use is particularly high among young people, possibly because they think it's less dangerous or because it's easier to hide this habit.

"The bottom line is that even those who are not supportive agree that the writing is on the wall, and sooner or later every state will have laws and policies in place," says Barnes. "It will likely happen; it's just matter of when."

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