January 11 is the anniversary of a pivotal 1964 report that linked smoking to lung cancer. Fifty years later,around one in four Mississippi adults still smoke. But the state's next generation may change those statistics.
"Take it from Terrance -- you better tell somebody."
Recognize him? That's Terrance the Rat, whose squeaky tag line is meant to encourage kids to spread the message of smoking’s dangers.
Fifteen years ago, in 1999, almost a quarter of Mississippi middle schoolers -- that's 23% of kids who are 11, 12, 13 years old -- smoked.
That rate's fallen 75 percent, to 5.8%, and Sandra Shelson with the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi says Terrance had a lot to do with it.
"Young kids like to teach up - they like to tell their parents and other adults what they've learned," she says. "So we were teaching them reject all tobacco' - that's where Terrance the Rat comes in. RAT stands for 'reject all tobacco.'
"So the whole idea is that they take that message and then they go home and say, 'Grandma, Grandpa, you don't need to smoke around me. Mommy, Daddy, you need to quit smoking. Secondhand smoke is bad for me.'"
Shelson says, with the help of money from the state’s tobacco settlement, a comprehensive youth prevention program was put in place starting in the late 1990s, and it's helped change the way kids think about smoking.
"If you think back, you used to see people smoking everywhere, but over the course of the last 15-plus years, that has really changed, and that's because the social norm has changed," she says. "A comprehensive program is one that's going to be in the religious setting, it's going to be in a school setting, at a community level, after-school programs - wherever kids are."
Shelson says policy changes such as making schools tobacco-free in 2000 and raising the cigarette tax in 2009 were also critical.
Roy Hart, head of the state’s Office of Tobacco Control, says the state will have to make more policy changes if it wants the progress to continue.
"We've reached a plataeau with adults and high school students, and even a similar kind of trend line with middle school students," he says. "And we believe it's going to take a policy change, like a state-wide smoke-free air law, to have a dramatic effect on prevelance rates in the state of Mississippi."
Among high school students, almost a third, or 32.5%, smoked in 1999. Now, 18.1% do.