Teen smoking, obesity and other Maine health issues
What are some of the major health issues facing the state of Maine? Candidates for the Governor of Maine spoke at a health forum hosted by the Maine Medical Association in Bar Harbor on September 13. They addressed public health issues such as Maine's growing rate of teen smoking, the obesity epidemic taking hold of Maine adults and children, the shortage of physicians in Maine, environmental issues such as toxic exposure, and the appropriate use of money in the Fund for Healthy Maine.
Education was the theme of the forum, as many candidates stressed the importance of teaching students about health issues such as proper nutrition and exercise from an early age.
According to a 2009 United Health Foundation study, 25.8 percent of Maine's population is obese, and Maine ranks 22nd in the nation in this category. The number one state reported a still rather high 19.1 percent of its population as obese, as well, proving that obesity is not just a problem facing Maine but a national epidemic.
Maine had the 48th highest percentage of adults with high cholesterol, the 36th highest percentage of adults with high blood pressure and the 42nd highest percentage of adults with cardiac heart disease.
As a volunteer for Colby Cares About Kids (CCAK), Allison Ehrenreich '12 has observed the lack of nutritional knowledge firsthand. The afterschool program that she volunteers at in Waterville tries to provide the kids with a lot of different varieties of food, she explains, because often the kids aren't coming from a particularly affluent background and might not get enough to eat at home.
"The cook there tries to make things that are very filling, like mac n' cheese," Ehrenreich said, but she is skeptical about the nutritional balance of these meals. "And there is always dessert-cake, brownies, whatever" she said. "I see my mentee, a fifth grade boy, eating candy for an hour. Whether it's the baked goods that they make there or the candy that's been given out as treats for homework, it's a lot of candy."
"We need to make sure that kids in school actually learn about healthy behaviors and healthy eating," Independent Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth said. "We need to connect our farms and our school lunch programs and finally, we need to have some kind of statewide guidance or standards for physical exercise," he said.
Republican nominee and mayor of Waterville Paul LePage agreed that while education is important, the problem is largely dependent on Maine's economy. "All we have to do is make this state prosperous," LePage said. We can do this by allowing Maine families "to go from 80 percent of the national average in earnings to 100 percent so that [they] can compete and buy healthy groceries," he said.
Looking at other health concerns, in the same 2009 study Maine ranked 23rd in the nation for prevalence of smoking. An estimated 18.1 percent of the population smoke cigarettes on a daily basis. In the number one state (the state with the most smokers) only 9.3 percent of the population were smokers. With the high rate of smoking among teenagers, the number of people who smoke in Maine will only continue to increase.
At the forum, four out of five candidates stated that they would be hesitant to raise cigarette taxes in order to discourage teen smoking. Many cited the burden the tax would place upon struggling Mainers in this already harsh economic climate.
All of the candidates agreed that Maine needs to put more focus on anti-tobacco education in schools. Independent Shawn Moody of Gorham said that he would support a slight tax increase on tobacco products, provided that the money went to fund programs that promoted the dangers of tobacco use in schools as well as law enforcement aimed at preventing the sale of tobacco products to underage children.
"Having come from the welfare environment, I know what happens when you raise the taxes on tobacco products," Republican nominee and current mayor of Waterville Paul LePage said. "What happens is they get their cigarettes, one way or the other, and who suffers but the kids?" he said. "They will give up good dietary programs to get their cigarettes. The best thing is to educate, not legislate."