- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Americans’ continued smoking habits and spike in obesity have slowed improvements in the country’s overall health, according to a report to be released today.

“The health of the nation has leveled off and we have not reached an ideal limit,” said Archelle Georgiou, medical adviser to the UnitedHealth Foundation. “There is room for improvement.”

UnitedHealth Foundation, a nonprofit funded by health care giant UnitedHealth Group, has produced what is called the nation’s annual checkup since 1990. Findings are based on data from federal government agencies and the National Association of State Budget Officers. The assessment takes into account key overall health indicators such as smoking, preventable disease, graduation rates, crime rates and poverty.

Although the nation’s health has improved by nearly 20 percent since the report debuted in 1990, progress has slowed considerably in the past seven years to a 0.3 percent increase this year, and the nation’s battle with obesity is a leading contributor.

The obesity rate jumped from 11.6 percent of the population in 1990 to 25 percent in 2005. Obesity can cause life-threatening conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.

“The report’s findings on obesity in this country are alarming,” Dr. Georgiou said.

The report found that 45 million American adults smoke cigarettes regularly and tobacco-related illnesses led to 400,000 deaths last year. The American Cancer Society projects that if current trends continue, 1 billion people worldwide will die from tobacco’s effects this century.

Adult smoking rates declined from nearly 25 percent to just over 20 percent from 1997 to 2005. Over the same period, the number of smokers younger than 18 dropped from 36 percent to 23 percent.

The report credits government-imposed restrictions. The District of Columbia will prohibit smoking in restaurants and bars beginning Jan. 2. In the past four years, 42 states and the District have increased cigarette taxes.

Contributing to overall health improvements are a decrease in the incidence of infectious diseases and a small increase in the number of high school graduates, the report said. A person’s level of education has a direct effect on health awareness, Dr. Georgiou said.

Maryland ranked as the 32nd healthiest state, up two spots from last year. The violent crime rate is the No. 1 contributor to the state’s low score.

Virginia moved up three spots to the 21st with a high infant mortality rate as the state’s most challenging health concern, the report said.

The District is not included in the rankings because it is considerably more urban than states, but the report cites high rates of violent crime and poverty as significant health concerns.

The report ranked Minnesota as the healthiest state, based on a low number of premature deaths and a low uninsured population. Minnesota topped the list for the 11th time in 17 years. Louisiana came in as the least healthy state for several reasons, including a high obesity rate and a high percentage of children in poverty.

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