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If the law is repealed, Matheny said, the school board can then include high-schoolers in its ban on soda pop sales.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Board of Education, Jeffrey said, "I'm a little nervous about assuming the board would take that action if the law were repealed."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.