'A lot of momentum' on fitness, obesity
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Increase the tax on tobacco, the West Virginia Healthy Lifestyle Coalition urged the Legislature Wednesday. Ban sales of soda pop in high schools. Let community groups use school gyms after school.
"We have a lot of momentum, and we're aiming at improving the health of the citizens and addressing our obesity and chronic disease epidemics," coalition chairwoman Helen Matheny told a well-attended hearing in the House of Delegates chamber.
Her all-volunteer coalition was created by the Healthy Lifestyles Act to advise the Legislature.
"We've got a perfect storm with this health situation, and it affects every one of us," Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, said after Matheny testified. "We all need to focus on it, including the Agriculture Committee, which I chair," he said.
"Could there not be a collaborative effort or joint meetings among committees?" he asked. "If we work together, we might get somewhere."
"That's a great idea," Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, co-chairman of the Joint Health and Human Resources Committee, said. Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, the other co-chair, said he intends to pursue the idea.
West Virginia spends more than $1 billion per year on diabetes alone, the American Diabetes Association estimates. Without significant action, that amount could triple in 10 years, the federal Centers for Disease Control predict.
The coalition recommended that the Legislature repeal the section of the law that allows the sale of soda pop and other sugary drinks to high-schoolers. The same section bans sale to younger children.
State school board policy also forbids sale of sugary drinks to younger children on school property and at school events, but the board cannot include high-schoolers in its ban "because they cannot establish policies that conflict with state law," according to Office of Child Nutrition Director Rick Goff.
If the law is repealed, Matheny said, the school board can then include high-schoolers in its ban on soda pop sales.
"That's confusing," said Charleston Area Medical Center's Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, who worked with the coalition on children's issues. "I'm not sure why they can't just change state law to ban sales to high school students too."
Given current turmoil in the state Board of Education, Jeffrey said, "I'm a little nervous about assuming the board would take that action if the law were repealed."
The coalition also recommended that ways be found to:
-- Encourage more schools to allow community members to use school gyms, tracks and other physical activity resources during non-school hours. "Many communities don't otherwise have those kinds of resources, so this is one solution," Matheny said.
-- Require physical education teachers to keep students active at least 50 percent of their time in P.E. "We've heard that, lots of times, kids are put in front of videos and do not actually get up and move," said coalition member Kelly Sadd.
-- Expand the state's Health and Physical Education Leadership Academy, which has trained more than 300 P.E. teachers statewide in creative ways to keep children active in school.
-- Increase the number of farmers markets throughout the state
-- Encourage schools to buy from local farmers through the Farm to School program.
-- Improve access to dental care for pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid
-- Adopt "comprehensive strategies to reduce overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages."
Perry Bryant, director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said he was disappointed to see no recommendation to increase children's physical activity time. "Given the severity of the state's problems and the proven effectiveness of physical activity, one would have hoped for bolder proposals," he said. "But these are first steps."
"Next year, we're going to really concentrate on physical activity, and not just during school time," Sadd said.
Grade-schoolers must now have only 90 minutes of P.E. a week. High-schoolers take P.E. only one semester out of eight.
The report did not specifically recommend an increase in the soda pop tax, but Stollings said, "Nobody should be surprised to see something surface during the session."
Monday, Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, tested the waters in his Health subcommittee for a soda tax increase, but "the members didn't want to pursue it," he said.
Wednesday, one member, Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, said he was not opposed to a soda pop tax, but the rate proposed Monday -- a penny an ounce -- was too high.
After Matheny testified, Jessica Wright, who directs the Bureau of Public Health's chronic disease efforts, summarized the bureau's activities to curb chronic disease.
The latest development: The bureau got a grant this week to create a referral network to make it easier for doctors and other providers to locate diabetes self-management programs for patients.
"There's a lot percolating," Stollings said. "Surely we'll start bending some of our health curves downward."
Reach Kate Long at email@example.com or 304-348-1798.