HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

A Valentine’s Day Gift of Health

It’s February, the month for love. Your statehouse bulges with people who profess to love you. Throughout their campaigns they voiced their love until you elected them.

Now make them give you a Valentine’s bouquet of healthy legislation. Although we think of Washington dictating its Big Brother ukases on “health,” statehouses hold considerable sway. Their laws and regulations can nudge us towards healthier lives in myriad ways that don’t require massive outlays, ways that may save money in the long run.

Here is how state legislators can say “I love you.”

• Spare our lungs from tobacco. Enact stringent no-smoking rules in public spaces, as well as in workplaces, restaurants and bars. Currently smoking laws vary by state and community. Ten states have no bans, though individual communities may enact restrictions, which can range from outright bans to requirements for non-smoking and smoking areas. Some bans exempt bars, small restaurants, and small workplaces. Enough of the hodgepodge: even tobacco executives probably don’t smoke; and the evidence on second-hand smoke makes these regulations easy to justify.

• Help our children slim down. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Twenty-seven percent of all young adults are “too fat to serve in the military,” according to a report by Mission Readiness, “Too Fat to Fight.” Solons should take that statistic as a plea-for-action.

First, nudge children off their chairs. Incorporate physical activity into the school regimen. Reinstate daily “gym” classes. Add after-school sports – not just the varsity sports for super-athletes, but the intramural sports open to everybody else. Start students’ day with a jog around the building. Consider physical fitness standards for graduation, testing for “core strength” as part of the “core curriculum.”

Second, up the nutrition, lower the calories, in school lunches. Most children of all ages prefer French fries to broccoli, pizza to beans, soda to milk. So what! The role of schools is not to placate children, but to nourish them.

• Help adults slim down. Make restaurants post the calorie-counts of entrees. National chains do it. (The FDA has required large chain restaurants and movie theaters to post their calorie counts). Diners will at least be mindful of the calories they eat.

Then move on to public safety officials. In the movies they run fast, overtaking fleet-footed felons. In reality, although the caricature of the overweight doughnut-eating police officer is unfair, there are enough of them to behoove communities to enforce fitness standards, not just for hiring but for tenure.

• Force us to buckle up. Seat belts save lives: the truism is true. Yet an estimated 25% of us don’t use them – the highest in the developed world. We have excuses: not enough time, a short trip, uncomfortable straps, and of course the libertarian argument that “forcing” seat belts upon us mocks the courage of the Founding Fathers, who established this nation expressly to keep Big Brother from such a liberty-robbing rule. One estimate predicts that if everybody, passengers and drivers, buckled up, we’d avert one-third of automobile fatalities.

Currently, these laws also are a hodge-podge: primary enforcement (can stop for not wearing seat belts); primary enforcement with exemptions for back seat; secondary enforcement, secondary enforcement with back seat exemption. Some states have stricter requirements for children. Enact strict laws, and enforce them. As for libertarians, encourage them to find a less suicidal, less lethal mode of protest.

• Force us to sober up, at least behind the wheel. Again, driving drunk is not a libertarian right. These laws are another hodgepodge. Can you drive with an open container of alcohol? When will a judge mandate an ignition interlock? What is the penalty for a repeat offender? Will a vehicle be impounded? How long will a first offender lose a license? It depends on the state, and, often, within the state, on the discretion of the judge. Toughen those laws. Even the attorneys who make six-figure incomes by defending DUI clients do not want to be on the road with those clients.

These regulations do not incite the impassioned opposition that gun-control laws, or abortion funding, incite. Yet these common-sense rules can bolster our health, spare our families grief, and pare hospital budgets. A better gift than chocolate or flowers.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2015

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