Once again, the Tristate tops the nation.
But this time, it's nothing to be proud of.
We have the highest rate of adult smoking in the nation. And that is a dubious distinction. (STORY)
Kentucky is No. 1. Thirty-two percent of all adults puff on burning leaves in the state whose economy is so tied to tobacco its restaurants might as well have smoking and chain-smoking sections.
Indiana finished second with 28.7 percent.
Ohio was close behind in third place with 28.5 percent.
This is a contest where sweeping the top three spots is a hollow victory. I see it as taking the gold, silver and bronze medals in the race for misery, suffering and a slow, agonizing death.
But, then, I've never smoked. And I hate cigarettes. So, don't take my word for it.
Talk with Sue Geraci-Jones instead. She's burying her Jonesy today.
Sending a message
Jonesy was her husband, Merwin Russell Jones Jr. He died last week from 73 years of living and 50 years of smoking.
He stopped smoking seven years ago, when he married Sue.
''He wanted to live longer to be with me,'' Sue said. ''But the damage to his lungs had already been done.''
For the last two years, Jonesy's life was more pain than joy. His breathing problems forced him to give up the things he loved, travel, driving, playing golf and dancing.
''I taught him how to jitterbug,'' Sue said. ''He was a short man. But, when we danced and moved so smoothly together, he was tall.''
After he got sick, Jonesy would pant and grab his chest when he'd try to do little things, like putting on his socks, walking the steps at their house in Springdale or getting out of bed in the morning.
Sue used to joke with him and say, the only way she could get him to go from a prone position in bed to sitting up in less than nine minutes was if she screamed, ''The house is on fire!''
Toward the end, he needed oxygen to breathe and morphine to ease the pain.
''Everything hurt,'' Sue said. ''I'd pat his leg to soothe him - it was just a tender touch - and he'd say, 'Not so hard.'''
She remembers the sounds he made as he struggled to breathe. ''He would gasp, wheeze and moan - the sounds of a smoker.''
She can still see him trying to get out of their car. Jonesy would lean on the hood, hoping to gather his strength and what was left of his breath.
''Why can't they get through to people about smoking?'' Sue wondered as she wiped her eyes. ''When they smoke, they are planting bad seeds that will grow up and hurt them down the road.''
Finish the race
In California, the state warns people about those bad seeds. Strongly worded messages are sent out that say: Smoking Kills. They're on TV in graphic commercials that pull no punches. They're on billboards: A well-dressed man puts a cigarette to his lips. ''Mind if I smoke?'' he says to a gorgeous woman. She asks: ''Mind if I die?''
Those messages and community-based anti-smoking education programs cost money. But they get results. So, it's not good money being thrown after bad.
California spends $25 million a year on these voter-approved efforts that are paid for by cigarette taxes. When the program started in 1990, California's rate of adult smokers was 22 percent. Today it's 18.6 percent, the second-lowest rate in the 50 states.
Ohio just started its anti-tobacco program this year. The budget is $200,000. And Ohio has the third-highest rate of adult smokers in the nation.
Good thing the 21st Great American Smokeout is Thursday. In light of the first, second and third place finishes of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, the day will remind the Tristate how far we still must go to win the race to stop smoking.
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.