Maine got some bad news last week with the release of America’s Health Rankings 2013, a report that ranks the states by various measures of the health of their residents.
Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and the FBI, the report grades the states on the physical and behavioral traits that lead to good health.
While Maine stayed in the top third of states overall, it slipped in a handful of categories that could make a big difference in years to come.
Maine fell from 18th place to 33rd place for binge drinking; 25th place to 28th place for obesity; and 37th place to 39th place for cancer deaths. There was a slight improvement in percentage of smokers (from 33rd place to 29th place), but it remained high, keeping Maine on the wrong end of the scale.
Along with our aging population, the unhealthy behaviors that lead to these rankings take away from the quality of life of too many of our residents and create a financial burden for us all. Delivering health care is expensive in Maine, and when individuals avoid developing health problems, not only are they better off but so are the rest of us.
The good news about these rankings is how many of the factors that affect our health are within our control. People need support to make healthier choices, and we should help them.
Maine should set public health goals and take steps to meet them. For instance, too many Mainers smoke tobacco. It’s the No. 1 preventable cause of cancer, as well as a leading contributor to heart disease and lung ailments such as emphysema.
Increasing spending for smoking cessation treatment would be a wise investment and give Maine smokers the help they need to quit. Raising cigarette taxes would discourage people from smoking, especially young people, who are the most sensitive to higher prices. Education programs that stop children from ever starting would be the best investment we could make in preventing future health problems.
Fighting obesity is another area where the state could improve. People need access to healthy food and opportunities to exercise.
The state could help low-income people and local farmers by offering subsidies for the purchase of local produce. Cities and towns and the state Department of Transportation should put more effort into including sidewalks and bike paths in road projects, and favoring development that allows people to shop or reach school without getting in a car.
Other public health programs could target excessive drinking and universal vaccination. Efforts to make primary care accessible to all Mainers should be continued.
With its natural resources and four-season recreation, Maine could be the healthiest state in the country. We have the ability to change these statistics — all it would take is the will.