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Kudos -- and airtime -- for the governor

Gov. Mike Huckabee deserves credit for spotlighting Arkansas’s serious health problems. He’s to be commended for working to extend new preventive health care benefits to state employees and Medicaid recipients. Under Huckabee, the Department of Human Services won grants from the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company (a Huckabee campaign contributor) to fund diabetes intervention. But his Healthy Arkansas Initiative is largely an advertising campaign featuring him, funded by federal WIC and tobacco settlement dollars transferred to DHS to create promotional materials. Among them: A fancy, plastic-cased version of his "Blueprint for Changing the Culture of Health," prominently featuring photos of the governor running, smiling and looking gubernatorial, created for the National Governors Association meeting at a cost of more than $31,000. It may not go down well with some that the Health Department, which has had huge budget and program cuts over the past few years, allocated $125,000 in WIC funds to promote the otherwise unfunded Healthy Arkansas Initiative. But many people, including doctors who otherwise praise the governor for his focus on health, are more irked by his loyalty to groups that are counterproductive to his aims: the soda and tobacco lobbies. If he was on speaking terms with the Times, Gov. Huckabee would no doubt argue that their contributions to his campaigns or to projects dear to his heart — like the new china Philip Morris has set the Governor’s Mansion table with — have nothing to do with his reluctance to put his money where his mouth is. Huckabee’s Healthy Arkansas Initiative has a goal of reducing the rate of underage smoking from 36 percent to 16 percent and adult smoking from 24 percent to 12 percent. But in 2001, when poor state revenues were forcing the first of the Health Department’s budget cuts and Huckabee was focused on covenant marriage instead of his waistline, the governor stubbed out a vote by the state Board of Health to ban smoking in restaurants. The issue had put him and his friend and appointee, Health Department Director Fay Boozman, on opposite sides, a rare position for them. The initiative also seeks to cut the number of obese children in half. In 2005, the Healthy Arkansas blueprint says, obesity will surpass tobacco-related diseases as the main cause of death in the nation. Pediatricians who treat obesity say that soft drinks are the scourge of the overweight child. Sugary carbonated drinks or so-called "sport" drinks may account for hundreds of calories in the diet of an overweight child, some of whom toss back up to six a day. The high fructose corn syrup these drinks contain may contribute to the diabetes problem: Animal studies are finding that the cheap and pervasive sweetener eats away at the body’s ability to lower blood sugar and creates a craving for more sweets. Another study, in Cambridge, Mass., found that for every additional soda a child drinks, his or her risk of obesity rises by 60 percent. A "Ditch the Fizz" program that encouraged students in six schools in Great Britain to quit sweetened drinks and instead choose water reduced their number of overweight and obese children. But Huckabee has made it clear he’ll never create governmental "grease police" (nor, one supposes, soda sheriffs) to interfere in the schools’ business. He’s argued repeatedly that there are no studies that definitively link sodas at schools with childhood obesity. The governor sent his liaison Chris Pyle to meetings of the State Child Health Advisory Committee, created by Act 1220 to advise the Department of Education on how to make schools healthier places, to bear the message he wouldn’t support any policy that included a ban on school vending machines. Dennis Farmer, a "resource" member of the State Child Health Advisory Committee and president of the Arkansas Soda Association, argued that restrictions on the availability of soft drinks "demonize" them. "It’s not a matter of consuming; it’s overconsuming," he said. Despite the pressure, the committee decided to recommend that the state Education Department restrict access to vending machines in junior and senior highs. It recommended that carbonated sugar drinks make up no more than half the content of drink machines, and bottle sizes should be limited to 12 ounces. It also advised restricting sales of "foods of limited nutritional value." The Education Department received the committee’s recommendations in August. No public discussion of them has been scheduled. Lobbyist Farmer said he thinks the governor can and will veto any restrictions approved by the state board, all of whom are Huckabee appointees in any case. In the typical Arkansas school, 80 percent of the drinks available to students are high in sugar (the national average is 70 percent), a UAMS report said. At a meeting with Arkansas Center for Health Improvement Director Dr. Joe Thompson, a health department official noted that a tax on bottled soft drinks could discourage people from buying them and raise revenues for ACHI at the same time. But that wouldn’t sit well with the governor either. In a newsletter e-mailed in July, Huckabee wrote, "What I don’t want us to do is enact government policies that make it harder for poor people to put groceries on the table. The poor tend to eat unhealthy foods because they’re cheap. Foods that stretch the budget also stretch the waistline. … We need to understand that raising the costs of certain foods or making them harder to obtain won’t necessarily lead to healthier choices. The key is showing people how to make lifestyle changes." Ironically, Dr. Philip Kern, the UAMS doctor who led the governor out of the deep-fried wilderness, thinks some government intervention is called for. "We’re the victims of our own success," Kern observed, our abundance exploited by a food and restaurant industry that knows our hunter-gatherer minds can be tempted to stuff our Barcalounger bodies. "I personally think that the problem of obesity is so big — no pun intended — that some kind of legislative action is needed," Kern said. For example, insurance does not cover Kern’s program at UAMS. It costs $500 to enroll in the program, and another $60 a week for the dietary supplements. There are other costs as well. "Prevention is a lot cheaper than treating complications," Kern noted. Requiring insurance companies to cover such programs is a kind of government intervention the governor might like. Huckabee’s office declined to confirm he’s working on such legislation. "Plans for the legislative package for 2005 are strictly in the development stage," spokesman Rex Nelson said. "We’re not ready to discuss anything publicly."

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