Sunday, March 16, 2008

Using rural "lack of anonymity" for a good cause

In my academic work on rurality I've written a great deal about the lack of anonymity (or "high density of acquaintanceship") that marks rural communities. Such familiarity with others and the implicit social control that often accompanies it can be a very powerful influence in rural communities. A photo my mom just sent me shows this social phenomenon being put to good use: to persuade local residents to stop smoking and using tobacco in other forms. This billboard, a project of the Newton County (AR) Tobacco Education Group, was funded by the Arkansas portion of the master settlement agreement with the tobacco companies. That money finances such initiatives, at the county level, across the state.

The billboard pictures and names four well-known county residents, along with the number of years each has been tobacco-free. It seems a good strategy for inspiring other locals to quit. Those featured include folks from various walks of life: white collar (the county health nurse and director of the Hometown Health Coalition), blue collar, retired, etc. Too bad there's not a student or other young person in the bunch. Similar billboards have apparently been used by other county coalitions in Arkansas.

My mom has served on the Newton County Tobacco Education Group since its inception several years ago. She periodically updates me on their successes, including convincing a number of local businesses (e.g, the supermarket in the county seat) to go smoke free. (Arkansas law subsequently mandated that for businesses which admit minors). The group has also been very active in local schools, including financing large signs that declare the campuses "smoke free." It's inspiring to see such effective grass roots work on a critical health issue in a highly impoverished place that offers few educational and economic opportunities to residents.

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