Patricia Duguay: Don’t sacrifice Healthy Maine programs

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Cuts to the Fund for Healthy Maine would affect a number of current prevention resources.

It was 12 years ago when Maine got a huge chunk of change in a court settlement from the major tobacco companies. This money was to be paid out for as long as the tobacco companies continued to sell their deadly products.

Being the visionary state it is, Maine has used the money as it was intended — by targeting tobacco, preventable chronic conditions and healthy lifestyles. This money became known as the “Fund for a Healthy Maine.”

There have been many changes over the past 12 years. Remember when you could smoke in restaurants? Now you can’t smoke in most parks. I think it is so much better, but then again, I quit 15 years ago.

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Remember when cigarettes and other related garbage was within a hand’s reach? It was easy for kids to steal and Joe Camel really liked that. Fifteen years ago, 39 percent of Maine high school students smoked — the highest rate in the nation. In 2009, Maine dramatically lowered that rate to 18 percent. The state must be doing something right.

Remember when schools were thinking of cutting gym classes altogether? Now schools are finding ways to keep children active without cutting academic time. And it is becoming as easy as 5-2-1-0 Let’s Go!

Remember when hunger looked dirty and disheveled? The struggling economy has taken a hard toll on many with layoffs, shutdowns, rising heating, food and health insurance costs.

Who would have thought a person could get food poisoning from spinach? A perfect example of why it is important to keep as much food as we can close to home and support our state’s agriculture. Farmers markets and school gardens are becoming the norm in most Maine communities.

The rise in fast-food consumption has left many without the knowledge to prepare wholesome foods. That bag of beans from the food pantry doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to cook. Currently, there are a number of opportunities in our communities to educate folks on how to cook beans and much, much more.

Remember when the “cool parents” would get a keg and take all of the keys at a graduation party? I am sure they meant well, but did they consider other consequences, like unwanted sex and alcohol poisoning? Are they really the “cool parents” now?

Many of these changes were accomplished through the local Healthy Maine partnerships, the foundation of Maine’s developing public health system.

The networks across the state, including municipalities, schools, hospitals and health care providers, businesses and volunteers, have worked to reduce tobacco use, increase physical activity and improve nutrition. It takes a huge collaborative effort because these changes are not possible unless all parties work together. When it comes to public health, we should not be competing.

The Healthy Maine partnerships are investments in prevention. Public health saves lives and reduces the burden of chronic disease on individuals and families. A Robert Wood Johnson study has shown that for every dollar Maine spends on prevention, $7.50 is saved in health care, treatment and public safety costs.

Most programs are scientifically proven to have an impact and every project is assessed, planned, implemented, completed and measured. Every dollar is documented and, get this, funding not used is returned.

Maine has made good progress in improving the health of its residents. In 2003, Maine was ranked the 16th healthiest state. By 2009, Maine ranked ninth.

Prevention efforts are proven cost-saving and life-saving strategies, yet, when times are tough, they always seem to be first on the chopping block.

Cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine would affect a number of prevention resources. These cuts would eliminate anti-tobacco and obesity prevention programs (much to the delight of the tobacco companies and soda and junk-food industries). Other programs that would be wiped out include drugs for the elderly and disabled, community school grants, home visitation, Head Start, support for child care, immunizations, oral health programs, home visitation programs and services for the homeless.

The Healthy Maine partnerships have helped many Maine people quit smoking, have provided support to new parents, helped area small businesses and work sites create work-site wellness policies and programs, and provided resources for schools to educate children and parents about the harm of substance abuse.

The jobs connected with the Healthy Maine partnerships are private sector and the work is done within communities for communities. It has taken more than a decade to build an infrastructure that works for Maine and its residents. If this infrastructure is lost, it would take years to rebuild.

Maine’s current economic state requires difficult decisions, but prevention and its long-term payback should not be sacrificed.

Patricia Duguay is executive director of the River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, a local Healthy Maine partnership in Rumford.

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