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Tennessee Health Making Small Improvements, But Big Changes Needed

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

Efforts to improve the health of the 6.6 million people who call Tennessee home have been successful, but people who study and analyze health and well-being say much more needs to be done.

The Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness kicked off a six-city presentation tour in Knoxville on Tuesday. The bottom line, as outlined by foundation chair Rick Johnson, is that a focus on personal habits - such as exercise, diet and tobacco use - has moved the needle in a positive direction since 2013, but more substantial change will require a bigger, longer-term effort.

Just three chronic diseases – diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease – cost Tennessee $5.3 billion in 2015, more than the state spent on K-12 education. Those costs included direct medical care, lost productivity and premature death.

"Health and wellness is the low-hanging fruit," Pilot founder Jim Haslam said in opening remarks. "It's the easiest way [to address health costs]."

But Johnson acknowledged the personal choice approach has effective limits. Convincing people to reach for salad instead of a burger is a challenge, said Sycamore Institute director Laura Berlind. A report compiled by Sycamore showed that, despite recent improvements, Tennessee ranks below national averages for neonatal care, education and other factors that influence individual and community health.

"[The health and wellness panel] worked in a way predicated on getting people tools that are free and easy to use," Johnson said. "But cumulatively, we're about where we were five years ago, as a state. Let's keep building on that, but it's not enough."

Future steps may require policy change and governmental action. Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said elected leaders should consider "sugar taxes" levied on sodas and other beverages high in sugar content.

"In other states, that's worked," Buchanan said, comparing the effect to dropoffs in smoking seen after the introduction of package warning labels and higher cigarette prices.

Any kind of tax increase is likely to be a hard sell in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The future of health policy will be in the hands of Tennessee's next governor. Johnson told reporters he's spoken with Democratic nominee Karl Dean and GOP nominee Bill Lee. Both candidates, he said, are aware of the significance of health and wellness. Johnson expects health will continue to be a front-burner issue regardless of who is elected in November.