Report predicts obesity in W.Va. to nearly double
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A day after officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention praised a six-county obesity-reduction program in West Virginia as "a model for the nation," a new report warned that 60 percent of West Virginians will be obese by 2030 if West Virginia does not find a way to lose weight statewide.
The report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future," released Tuesday, predicts West Virginia also will face billions more in health-care costs if the state cannot reduce obesity statewide.
Trust for America's Health released the report, which recommends that communities take steps similar to those taken by the six-county program the CDC praised: increase the number of groceries and convenience stores that offer fresh, healthy food; increase physical activity possibilities, playgrounds and biking and walking trails; make sure children get more physical activity at school.
"Clearly, we need to take the lessons learned in the six-county program and spread them statewide," said Perry Bryant, director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care.
The Bureau of Public Health hopes to do so with a five-year statewide program, also funded by the CDC, starting this year.
The state could avoid $1.3 billion in medical costs by 2020 and $3.6 billion by 2030, the report predicts, if West Virginians can reduce their collective body mass index by only 5 percent. BMI is a measure of obesity.
"We have got to get serious about reducing obesity as a state," said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne and chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee. "When you start talking about extra billions of dollars, we're talking about making sure this state has enough money to pay for everything else we have to do. This is very much a fiscal issue. The sooner people see that the better."
In 2005, the Legislature set up the Governor's Office of Health Enhancement and Lifestyle Planning to get agencies to collaborate on reducing the growing obesity rate, he said. "The fact that GOHELP has not done that does not reduce the need for it to happen."
The "F as in Fat" report was produced by Trust for America's Health, a national research and advocacy organization, working with a research team from the National Heart Forum.
Its recommendations are achievable, trust director Jeff Levi said Tuesday in a conference call. "A 5 percent reduction in weight is not drastic," he said. "A 6-foot person who weighs 200 pounds would need to lose 10 pounds.
"The government cannot order people to lose weight," he said. "But communities and states can take steps that make it easier for people to lose weight by expanding the healthy choices available to them."
The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department took that approach in Calhoun, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane, Wirt and Wood counties with the Change the Future WV project, funded by a $4.5 million CDC grant.
That project, now ending, will be expanded by the state Bureau of Public Health into a statewide five-year project, funded by a $9.8 million CDC Community Transformation Grant.
The CDC expects West Virginia to reduce its collective BMI by 5 percent by the end of that project, CDC project officer Wendy Heirendt said Monday.
If that happens, according to the "F as in Fat" report, tens of thousands of West Virginians would be spared obesity-related diseases.
The researchers estimated that 60,000 West Virginians would not develop type-2 diabetes who otherwise would have. About 54,000 West Virginians would be spared heart disease or stroke. To get those estimates, they looked at the statistical frequency with which people develop those illnesses at different weights.
They also looked at income and education data. Nationally, one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year are obese, compared to one-quarter of those who earned $50,000 or more per year, in part because their neighborhoods offer fewer affordable healthy choices, researchers say.
The state's four largest health departments will oversee the new five-year community fitness program in all 55 counties. Dick Wittberg, director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said he plans to concentrate heavily on preventing and reducing diabetes. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said he plans to work extensively with children and public-awareness media in Southern West Virginia.
But the statewide program is not well-funded. "It's going to take more than a $1.8 million-a-year grant to reduce an epidemic," Bryant said. "Other pieces have to fall in place for change to happen."
In 2014, the Affordable Care Act health insurance reform will provide health insurance for the state's quarter-million uninsured people. "When that happens, a lot of people will get preventative care," Bryant said.
If Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin does not expand the Medicaid coverage, as health-care reform allows, "a lot of working poor people will still not have health-care coverage."
"But if people can get preventative care at the same time as their communities expand healthy choices, that will be a winning combination," he said. "We'd have a real chance to make a desperately needed difference."
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.