Light Success

Louisiana has ranked dead last 16 out of the 19 years the United Health Foundation has conducted its annual state health rankings. While it may not have been a cause to celebrate, Louisiana’s jump from 49 to 47 in the group’s 2009 report gave many a reason to hope.

“A lot of things people thought were not possible in Louisiana are suddenly possible,” said Dr. Charlie Brown, chairman of the steering committee for the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living. “It’s possible for the Saints to win. It’s possible to have a relatively honest governor, and it’s possible to improve our health.”

Louisiana winning battle on smoking, but obesity still rampant, ranking show

Louisiana winning battle on smoking, but obesity still rampant, ranking show

Being the 47th ranked state in health is no reason to declare victory, but the report illustrated positive trends taking place in Louisiana that can be built upon for future success, among them a significant decrease in the use of tobacco.

The percentage of the population that smokes decreased from 22.6 percent in 2008 to 20.4 percent in 2009, moving Louisiana from 41st to 35th. In the past five years, the prevalence of smoking in Louisiana has decreased by 23 percent.

In the past three years, incidents of lung cancer in Louisiana decreased by 9 percent with tobacco use accounting for more than 90 percent of lung cancer cases, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Living.

The main reason behind the decrease in smoking is an increase in the cost of cigarettes and the 2006 state ban on smoking in restaurants and the majority of public buildings, Brown said. The federal cigarette tax increased from 39 cents to $1.01 per pack in April. This year, the Louisiana Legislature rejected a proposal that would have increased the state tax from 36 cents to 86 cents.

“A pack of cigarettes costs $3.50 and if you smoke a pack a day, it adds up,” Brown said. “We consume 30 to 35 million packs a month in Louisiana, so someone is making one heck of a lot of money off of burning up something. We still have a lot of work to do.”

In addition to the inroads made against smoking, the biggest improvement was in the immunization coverage of children between ages 19 and 35 months. Louisiana moved from 39th, immunizing 77.7 percent of the child population to No. 5, covering 83 percent.

There was also good news on the obesity front. Louisiana moved up from 47 to 37 by decreasing its prevalence of obesity from 30.7 percent of its population to 28.9 percent.

The news isn’t all good, however.

Since 1990, the prevalence of obesity in Louisiana increased by 135 percent, but that is indicative of a nationwide trend, said J.T. Lane, deputy chief of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

To prove his point that Louisiana is not the only state that has failed to slim down, Lane points out that in 1990 Louisiana ranked 33rd in the prevalence of obesity with a rate of 12.3 percent. In 2009, the No. 1 state, Colorado, has a rate of 19.1 percent.

“Our nation as a whole is obese,” Lane said. “Americans consume 300 more calories a day than they did 25 years ago. We eat less nutritious foods because they are more expensive than fast foods. We walk less, drive more, parks and recreation spaces aren’t considered safe. We live a more sedentary lifestyle.”

The key to combating risky behaviors such as smoking and poor dietary habits is education, Brown said. Despite several improvements in its health, Louisiana lags in vital socio-economic categories.

It is 49th in high school graduation rate, 44th in children living in poverty and 48th in median household income. There is a direct correlation between a lack of education and poverty and poor health, Brown said. Providing increased access to medical services is not the cure-all.

“People need to be taught how to eat properly, that it’s not a good idea to smoke,” Brown said. “Do we need more nurses and doctors so you can go into an office and learn about something you’re going to forget about? Or do you need an educational system that will teach you good healthy habits from an early age? That’s where I think we need to go.”

Brown said it doesn’t do any good for people to wait until they’re sick and go see a doctor only to hear that they shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke as much.

“By that point, the horse is already out of the barn. We get into health problems because of unhealthy behaviors, and with the proper education and motivation those are things you personally can change.”


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