NORWAY — Officials say rising numbers of smokers and obesity are significant factors that contribute to Oxford and Androscoggin counties' ranking as some of the unhealthiest places in the state.
The annual County Health Rankings were released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute showing Oxford County to be the least healthy in the state. It's the second year in a row it has had that ranking.
It is followed by Washington, Somerset, Aroostook and Androscoggin counties, in that order.
The rankings include every county in all 50 states and measure how healthy people are and how long they will live.
Franklin County was ranked second healthiest county in the 16 Maine counties, after Hancock County, according to the survey. Last year it was ranked the most healthy county.
Officials in Oxford and Androscoggin counties said Wednesday they believe socio-economic factors played the most significant role in the low ranking.
Ken Morse, director of Healthy Oxford Hills in Norway, said the news comes as little surprise to him.
“There are a whole lot of factors, but the biggest one is economics,” Morse said. Healthy Oxford Hills is a coalition of people and organizations concerned with the health of residents. It organized in 2000 to protect and enhance the health of residents in Oxford Hills.
The rankings showed that 17 percent of adults in Oxford County reported being in fair health, compared to 13 percent in Hancock County, the healthiest county in the state. A total of 26 percent of Oxford County residents smoke and 21 percent of the children in Oxford County live in poverty.
Healthy Androscoggin Executive Director Steve Johndro said economics is an important factor in the rankings, which included being 13th out of 16 counties in health behaviors, which includes the number of smokers.
“I definitely do believe what Ken Morse says that economics does definitely play a factor and it is probably the most significant factor in Androscoggin County as well,” Johndro said. He oversees the community coalition geared to improving the public health of county residents through policy and environmental change and resource development. It began in 1995 as a grass-roots organization called Tobacco Free L-A.
“We certainly see some challenges in the health behaviors areas in the health rankings, especially around the obesity rate of adult obesity, the rate of adult smoking as well as excessive drinking and sexually transmitted infections. Those are certainly areas we could see some improvement in,” he said.
Morse said the rate for smoking has begun to noticeably increase again in Oxford County.
“With smoking it's pretty hard to tell. Certainly low-income folks have many more issues with substance abuse and tobacco overall dealing with stress,” he said.
While the problems of increased smoking and obesity are affecting Oxford and Androscoggin counties, according to local area health officials, those issues are not tied to the “least healthy” county rankings exclusively.
In Franklin County, Heather Davis, executive director of the Health Community Coalition in Farmington, said smoking in young people and obesity are also growing problems for that area.
Economic factors are considered contributors to the problem and one reason why Franklin County was ranked 12th in social and economic factors, which include unemployment and the number of single-parent households.
While Davis said she had not had time to digest the report to determine why the county may have gone from No. 1 to No. 2 in healthiest rankings, she said the long history the county has in promoting cardiovascular programs certainly has helped improve the overall health in Franklin County.
Interim State Health Officer Stephen Sears issued a statement on the rankings Wednesday saying, “Although some of our counties have better health outcomes than others, it is important to note that, overall Maine is one of the healthiest states in the union. Recent positive state rankings reflect a concerted effort to address health challenges through collaboration of a variety of public health stakeholders at the local, regional and state levels.”