by Candi Helseth
In Iowa’s Ringgold County, tobacco fumes aren’t wafting through the air at baseball games and fewer cigarette butts litter the public park playgrounds in four communities that have taken a stand against tobacco usage in outdoor environments. Banning tobacco product usage outdoors is a harder sell than eliminating indoor secondhand smoke, but a health-focused coalition in this small, rural county of only 5,131 residents has proven that perseverance pays.
Two years ago, Ringgold County Public Health initiated a community effort aimed at reducing tobacco litter and eliminating secondhand smoke in public parks. The Ringgold County Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative involved citizens from all walks, but Assistant Project Manager Vicki Sickels, a Public Health staff member, says high school students presented the most compelling arguments to resistant city council members. Mount Ayr City Council was the first to unanimously adopt a 100 percent tobacco-free policy last March for its public park and baseball diamond. The communities of Tingley, Kellerton, and Redding followed suit a month later.
“I think when the adults on these boards saw that there were young people like us who thought this was important, it helped them think how parks should be family friendly and how this would affect future generations,” said Taylor Still, a senior at Mount Ayr High School. “At first, they didn’t really want to talk about making these changes.”
Still was among a dozen high school students who attended city and county meetings, educating local leaders about the need for change. Project surveys indicated about 40 percent of high school students had already experimented with tobacco usage. Nearly 75 percent of adults surveyed favored tobacco-free parks.
“Most people were surprised that we had such a high number of students experimenting with tobacco and our surveys showed that nearly all adults, including tobacco users, felt that more was needed to be done to keep youth from using tobacco products,” Sickels said. “We really focused on public education and changing social acceptance of tobacco products. We also demonstrated the effects of environmental damage and the importance of healthy role modeling for young children.”
Mount Ayr coalition students take their responsibility as role models seriously. Still said two classmates influenced by the group’s involvement in the campaign quit smoking and joined Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) at school. They remain smoke-free.
“We know that we are an example to the younger kids too, and hopefully when they see we don’t do it, they won’t want to either,” Still commented. “It’s not cool in our class to smoke. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case with the seniors.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) applied for and received a $3.2 million two-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control; part of that amount funded Ringgold County’s project. In addition to the research and educational campaigns, grant monies covered brochure costs, erection of a highway billboard promoting tobacco-free parks and signs in the parks announcing the new policy. A follow-up survey indicated 86 percent of adult residents support tobacco-free parks. Sickels said enforcement hasn’t been an issue.
While funding officially ended last March, remaining funds are being used to provide free nicotine replacement therapy for Ringgold County residents that call the statewide Quitline Iowa program. In the last two years, Sickels said there has been a 300 percent increase statewide in callers requesting assistance.
While the United States has made major progress against tobacco use, one in five Americans still smokes, and about 4,000 kids try their first cigarette each day, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The Campaign also states that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more people annually than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.
IDPH spends about $10.4 million each year on tobacco prevention; in comparison, the tobacco industry spends about $176 million a year marketing its products in Iowa. Still, IDPH has made strides in its campaign. The 2008 Iowa Smoke Free Air Act prohibits indoor smoking statewide in public buildings (with the exception of casinos). Several other Iowa communities have also adopted tobacco free policies for public parks. However, the battle is far from won. Ringgold County, for example, still has five public parks that aren’t tobacco free because leaders overseeing those parks rejected the coalition’s efforts, fearful of lost revenue.
According to IDPH Community Health Consultant Jerilyn Oshel, every year 4,400 adults die in Iowa from smoking and 480 adult nonsmokers die from exposure to secondhand smoke. Health care expenditures from tobacco use amount to $1 billion and from secondhand smoke exposure, $49.2 million.
“It’s people’s choice if they want to smoke but if they are smoking around someone who does not smoke, it’s certainly not that person’s choice to have to breathe it,” Still asserted. “People who smoke should have to smoke somewhere that isn’t taking away another person’s choice to breathe healthy air.”
To learn more about the project, contact Ringgold County Public Health at 641-464-0691 or Vicki Sickels at email@example.com, or visit their Tobacco Prevention web page (link no longer available).
Back to: Fall 2012 Issue