A quick look at the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF) map of smokefree protections for the United States reveals that there is much work to be done throughout the South. Lay that map over any demographic map of the United States and you will see layers of disparities. Those who are lacking in smokefree protections are the same communities that bear multiple burdens including low wages, struggling educational systems, high incidence of chronic disease, lack of access to care, and political disenfranchisement.

Yes, place matters. In a place where politics don’t always reflect the population, our work is ever more challenging. Building a culture of health in the South means working with communities to address multiple issues. Tobacco control and smokefree policy efforts include reaching out to the people and organizations that are invested in improving the overall quality of life of its constituents. That may mean building alliances with advocates working on educational reform, livable wages, access to care, public safety, or community development. It is through partnerships with these and other allies that we learn to translate our public health messages into meaningful initiatives worthy of full community engagement. We answer the question, “Why should I care?”

The work that is happening in the Southern states is not just about organizing for smokefree protections, but about working to build a community’s capacity to improve its condition.

While there is much work to be done, we know that many communities are stretched as they work to address a range of urgent issues. Often times, tobacco control efforts are seen as a distraction, not a solution, to the problems they face. However, successful tobacco control and smokefree efforts throughout the South have been integrated into approaches to address those issues. Since exposure to secondhand smoke is a leading preventable cause of disease, many communities focused on smokefree environments as a way to address multiple public and community health issues. Several communities, like Savannah, utilized the energy and organizing of community members and partners for its smokefree campaign to then move on to tackle other issue areas. As so eloquently stated by the New Orleans City Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, “ We can’t talk about improving the health of our citizens while we continue to have them spend 8, 10, even 12 hours in workplaces that make them sick.” She added that public health “is the most important thing” to improving overall community health. We agree. Last month, Councilwoman Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a law covering ALL of the formerly unprotected bar and casino workers throughout the city. Now, paying the bills doesn’t have to come at the expense of a worker’s health.

By: Onjewel Smith, American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation