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Gary Varvel | Indianapolis Star

Get healthy, Indiana

Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette
Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette
Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

A New Year’s resolution for Indiana? How about a statewide commitment to getting healthy? An annual report on the nation’s health shows Hoosiers slipping from 37th to 41st among the states for overall health measures.

The bottom-10 ranking should be a warning. All the economic development efforts in the world won’t counter the detrimental effects of an overweight, out-of-shape and costly workforce. Higher insurance and Medicaid costs, wages lost to illness and lagging school achievement because of absenteeism are just a few of the troubling results. But the state could reverse its slide. Here’s how:

Reduce the smoking rate

Indiana’s percentage of regular smokers actually increased this year, according to the report. From a rate of 21.2 percent in 2011, 25.6 percent of Hoosiers age 18 and older were regular smokers in 2012, giving the state the dubious distinction of the seventh-highest smoking rate in the U.S. Indiana’s direct annual health care costs related to smoking are estimated at $2.08 billion.

In 2011, lawmakers eliminated the highly effective Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation agency and transferred its responsibilities to the Indiana State Department of Health. One year doesn’t make a trend, but it’s certainly a worrisome development. Indiana spends on smoking prevention just 1.6 percent of the estimated $590 million collected nationally each year from the tobacco lawsuit settlement payments and tobacco-tax revenues.

Meanwhile, an estimated 9,200 people younger than 18 become smokers every year.

Reduce the obesity rate

Indiana follows a national trend here, but again ranks in the bottom 10. The percentage of Hoosiers classified as obese grew to 30.8 percent. Since 1990, it has more than doubled.

Schools must play an important role here, beginning with increased emphasis on physical activity during the school day. It’s simple to do – stop the growing emphasis on standardized testing, which is inevitably squeezing out time for phys ed and health classes.

Public policy can help, too. Transportation planning and development requirements could ensure sidewalks, bike paths and green space are considered when roads are built or improved or commercial or public buildings approved.

In a September report, the Centers for Disease Control noted that 27.2 percent of Hoosiers said that in the previous month they participated in no physical activity.

Call it a nanny-state approach if you must, but the public cost of obesity is immense – estimated at $147 billion nationally. It is linked to coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.

Improve the air

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show Hoosiers have the second-highest exposure to particulate matter, behind only Californians. Given Indiana’s laissez-faire regulatory approach in recent years, it’s not surprising that Hoosiers are experiencing poor air even as neighboring states have seen improvement.

The health repercussions are serious, especially for young children and older adults. Exposure to air pollution is linked to increased respiratory issues, decreased lung function, asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat and heart attack.

Again, Indiana has taken steps likely to exacerbate problems. Lawmakers approved consolidation of several state environmental oversight boards into a single rule-making board, jeopardizing the technical expertise of boards with specific oversight of air quality, water and more. Efficiency was the goal, but higher long-term health care costs could well be a result.

If Gov.-elect Mike Pence wants to make a real difference in Hoosiers’ lives, his policy litmus test should consider health effects. It will deliver not only a better quality of life in Indiana, but also reduced costs for public health care, higher student achievement and a workforce whose overall health doesn’t discourage economic investment.