Arizonans are overweight, inactive and not eating their fruits and vegetables, fueling an obesity epidemic that threatens to bankrupt our health care system, price private-sector insurance out of reach and send our children to early graves.
That’s the question the National Governors Association hopes to answer during a two-day meeting in Phoenix, bringing together policymakers from 35 states to launch the Healthy America initiative.
"We have a crisis that this year will take 700,000 Americans off the planet," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Wednesday. "We are now the victims of our own prosperity and success."
Nearly 60 percent of Arizona adults are overweight or obese, one-fourth of high school students are at risk of being overweight and at least 20 percent of Arizonans report that they engage in no physical activity.
Poor eating habits and lack of exercise increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases, and unhealthy lifestyles have been linked to rising rates of type 2 diabetes among children.
For Huckabee, chairman of the association, the mission to make America healthier is personal. He lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes two years ago and is now training for his third marathon. During the course of his transformation, Arkansas began screening children for obesity and giving health insurance breaks to nonsmoking state workers.
It was a risky political move for a Republican who has been mentioned as a 2008 presidential contender, but one Huckabee said he and other governors must take.
"It will take a generation, not just an election cycle, to really see full-scale change," he said. "But it may be the most important thing that we do for our country and our kids."
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is part of the six-governor Healthy America task force, which aims to help states share their best, evidencedbased programs to encourage healthy eating and exercise and reduce chronic disease.
"What I don’t want to do is reinvent the wheel," Napolitano said. "We’re going to listen intently to what’s going on (in other states)."
In January 2004, Napolitano called experts together to formulate a state plan to combat obesity and encourage Arizonans to adopt healthier lifestyles. The plan, issued a year later, includes strategies and recommendations for communities, parents, schools and employers, but no requirements or funding.
"We’ve got a lot of things going on. What we’re trying to do is make it all fit together," said Sue Gerard, director of the state Department of Health Services.
"There’s no easy, quick silver bullet to this," Gerard said. "You have to engage the parents. You have to engage the kids. You have to engage the community."
At the same time Americans are bursting at the seams, they are threatening to bust state Medicaid budgets. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s version of Medicaid, now insures 20 percent of the population.
It makes sense to adopt practices that are working in other states, rather than starting from scratch, said Catrine Tudor-Locke, associate professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University, who provided technical assistance for the state plan.
"This is a complex problem, and therefore we can’t find a simplistic solution," she said. "Every action is going to have ramifications. That’s why it’s so important to look at what’s succeeded someplace else."
Efforts to ban junk food and soda in public schools have met with resistance while concurrently, families are bombarded on a daily basis with fast-food marketing.
Nearly half of all meals in America are eaten outside of the home, Huckabee said.
"We’ve raised a generation of kids who think that they haven’t eaten if it doesn’t come out of a paper bag or a cardboard box," he said.
Schools are key to solving the problem, both in terms of the foods they serve and the health curriculum they teach, said Jeffrey Hampl, associate nutrition professor at ASU. Hampl also conferred on the state plan, but said there’s only so much states can do.
"Everyone has a different opinion, and that’s one reason we’re not moving forward," Hampl said.
"We need parents to get involved. We need parents to set good examples," he said. "And that’s not happening."
- To learn more about how Arizonans eat and exercise, search the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System at www.cdc.gov/brfss/
- For more about the National Governors Association’s Healthy America initiative, go to www.nga.org