At a time when many are focused on the deaths of more than 1,000 people due to Hurricane Katrina and nine people from Hurricane Rita, the head of the National Governors Association is warning of a far bigger ongoing national disaster: 600,000 Americans dying prematurely each year from obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is leading a crusade by the nation’s governors to get the American people and the news media to pay heed to what the governors see as a catastrophe.
It’s not that Huckabee is oblivious to the pain caused by the hurricanes. In fact, he left Washington after a speech at the National Press Club Friday to fly back to Arkansas to help the state cope with flooding expected from Hurricane Rita.
And Arkansas is playing host to about 60,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
But Huckabee put the hurricanes’ impact in a wider, long-term perspective.
“As a governor who has walked through many miles of destroyed property as a result of tornadoes or ice storms or floods, I can tell you it is a terrible, tragic thing” to see houses destroyed and people killed, Huckabee said.
“When a thousand people die at one time or 3,000 people die at one time (as on Sept 11, 2001) it grips us in a way that leaves an indelible mark on our memory, but there are horrors that take place in our country that take many lives and sometimes we don’t even pause to realize the impact,” he said.
Death toll: 2,000 per day
“The poor health habits of the citizens of our country are costing 600,000 Americans their lives every year due to lack of exercise and poor nutrition,” Huckabee said.
The death toll works out to 2,000 people every day. “Imagine the headlines that we’d read if today another 2,000 Americans died, and then tomorrow another 2,000, and then another,” the Arkansas governor said.
He brings to the crisis the fervor of a man who has saved his own life through a radical change in what he eats and how he exercises.
After doctors diagnosed Huckabee with Type 2 diabetes in 2003, he lost 110 pounds. Last March, Huckabee ran in the Little Rock Marathon and plans to run in the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30 in Washington.
Huckabee has served as Arkansas governor since 1996 and is pondering a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Huckabee may be the first self-help guru to make a bid for the White House. He’s the author of a book called “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork,” a plea for healthier living based on his own life-changing experience.
“I realized my personal situation was really a picture of the country. Obesity rates are up in this country by 77 percent since 1990,” he said.
Children afflicted by diabetes
The governor said 15 years ago, Arkansas Children’s Hospital had never diagnosed a case of Type 2 diabetes -- sometimes called “adult-onset diabetes” -- in a pre-teen age child. Today the hospital sees a dozen cases a week of pre-teen Type 2 diabetes.
“We can no longer call it adult onset diabetes because too many children and pre-teenagers are getting Type 2 diabetes,” he noted.
Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity and physical inactivity, accounts for 90 percent of diabetes cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
A child with type 2 diabetes will have serious heart problems by the time he is 30, and most likely renal failure and be on kidney dialysis by the time he is 40.
According to the CDC, from 1991 to 2001, there was a 61 percent increase in diagnosed diabetes and a 74 percent increase in obesity.
The CDC estimates that nearly 14 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes.
All this comes at a staggering cost to employers, taxpayers and the families of those who become chronically ill.
According to a 2002 CDC analysis, the direct and indirect costs of diabetes in the United States, including medical costs, disability, and work loss, was $132 billion a year.
The average annual health care costs for a person with diabetes were $13,243, more than five times higher than the health care costs for a person without diabetes.
Crushing impact on state budgets
Since many low-income people are eligible for Medicaid, the joint federal-state medical insurance program in which the states pay about 40 percent of the costs, the effect of unhealthy living on state budgets is huge.
The governors “don’t have the luxury of not confronting these issues, for the simple reason that unlike Washington we have to balance our budgets,” Huckabee said. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to do, largely because of the cost of chronic disease.”
When he became governor nine years ago, Arkansas’s outlays for Medicaid were $600 million. But today the state spends $3.5 billion.
As for remedies, it is not merely a matter of removing junk-food vending machines from schools, Huckabee said.
“Kids will tend to do what they see their parents modeling,” Huckabee said. “If kids are largely fed out of paper sacks on their way home from Little League, they will tend to think that that is nutrition.”
Not only do Americans eat high-calorie, high-fat food, but “we eat portions that are unlike anything Americans have ever consumed,” Huckabee said.
Need to change the culture
Changing the culture of obesity will require using public education campaigns, Huckabee said. He cited the 1970s seat belt campaign, the 1960’s anti-littering crusade, and the anti-smoking effort as models.
Seat belts were once an optional accessory when buying a car, but now seat belt use is mandatory and in some states stiff fines are imposed for not using them.
Back in Arkansas, Huckabee has taken some beginning steps:
- Two years ago Arkansas started screening all public schools students for their body mass and sending reports home to parents.
- The state pays for primary and preventive health care for children of parents who have too high an income to be eligible for Medicaid, but not a high enough income to afford private health insurance.
- Arkansas now gives its state employees exercise breaks, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon.
- Huckabee is working on a way to give food stamp recipients a financial incentive to buy healthier foods.