By Katherine Bryant, Senior Director, Government Relations and Advocacy, American Heart Association

Mississippi leads the nation in so many negative indicators, from education to health to poverty, that the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi” now can be found on Wikipedia.

It is what states say when they sit near the bottom of various national rankings. Thank God that Mississippi spares them the embarrassment of being last.

One has to wonder what impact this has on businesses looking for a state to relocate or expand, or families looking for a state to call home.

As for the latter, once again, we lead the nation in another negative indicator: the number of young people leaving. They are our future but they see no future here.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In 2015, Mississippi led the nation in a category nobody could have ever imagined. On the prestigious National Assessments of Educational Progress, our fourth graders made higher gains in reading and math than their peers in every other state.

We followed that up the following year by becoming one of the national leaders in academic gains made by both fourth and eighth graders in science.

This accomplishment came from state leaders, led by Gov. Phil Bryant, embarking on ambitious education reforms.

A good education better ensures that the young people in our classrooms will get into college and have a meaningful, productive futures, hopefully here in Mississippi.

We still have a long way to go. But the journey has begun and from that the momentum will build.

I recommend we undertake another journey now, one that begins to address our dismal rankings in health indicators. From premature deaths to infant mortality to cardiovascular disease, we lead the nation.

This is more than a human tragedy. A report by the University of Michigan noted that a company’s healthcare costs for a healthy employee is $3,000 a year. For an employee with at least one medical condition, that increases to $10,000.

There are no statistics on this. But I imagine Mississippi’s health rankings certainly do not help the cause of attracting the kind of employers we want here – those offering higher wages and medical insurance.

Like education before, our health issues almost seem insurmountable. But there is a starting point, one that addresses our high smoking rate.

Smoking isn’t the only culprit behind all our dismal statistics, but it certainly is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer, strokes and premature death.

Smoking affects those who smoke and those who do not. In a state that prides itself in protecting the unborn, smoking is linked to miscarriages, premature births and underweight babies.

Smoking costs the state of Mississippi more than $1 billion a year, hardly an amount we can afford.

The first step we can take is one proven to significantly lower smoking rates, particularly among children.

And that is to sharply raise taxes on cigarettes and other disease-causing tobacco products. Fewer people will smoke, fewer will get sick, and the state will begin recouping at least some of the money it spends treating the victims of smoking – both the old victims dying of cancer and the very young victims struggling for life in neonatal intensive care units.

This strategy, supported by a coalition of health and wellness leading groups including the American Heart Association, is simple to implement and will produce immediate results. It is not a cure-all, but like our education reforms, it is a significant beginning.

It is time to use forward thinking and smart policy, and once-and-for-all, erase “Thank God for Mississippi” from Wikipedia.

 Katherine Bryant is Senior Director, Government Relations and Advocacy, for the American Heart Association.