If you live in Chester County, Pennsylvania you are more likely to live longer, have a high school diploma, lead a tobacco-free life and breathe better air than if you live just a few minutes away, in Delaware County. Where we live matters to our health. That’s what the County Health Rankings tell us.
Last year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched the Rankings, a first-of-its-kind collection of reports that measured the overall health of nearly every county in all 50 states, as well as the different factors that affect health – from obesity to high school graduation rates to air pollution. The Rankings serve as an annual “check-up” for communities, showing them where they’re doing well and where they need to improve. The Rankings remind us that there is more to health than health care and that laws to improve health can be used to address the factors that influence the health of a community. The project is a call to action – an opportunity for communities across the country to work together to create meaningful changes that will improve health for everyone.
This is where you come in. As we gear up for the second year of the Rankings, I am asking you – the public health practitioners, lawyers, advocates and other change makers - to get involved and take action. Here are some ways you can help now:
As you know, many of the factors that affect health can be influenced by policies and laws. Tobacco laws in communities across the country or restrictions on vending machines in schools are some of the most dramatic, well-known examples of this. But a range of policy changes in communities can have big impacts on people’s health.
Take South Los Angeles, for example: 30 percent of its residents are obese – double the rate of wealthier parts of Los Angeles. And older residents are more likely to suffer from diabetes or heart disease. Many streets are blanketed with fast-food restaurants. An area known for its deep poverty, its residents turn to fast-food, the cheapest – and sometimes only – option for food. That’s why the city council passed a new policy last month: no new fast-food restaurants. Existing fast-food restaurants can stay, but no new stand-alone establishments can open. Instead, supporters hope for more sit-down restaurants, grocery stores stocked with fresh foods and healthier takeout options. According to the policy’s supporters, it’s simple – if you give people access to affordable, healthy food, they will eat it.
Efforts like these are what make communities healthy. These policies do not force people to change their habits, but provide conditions in which they can make healthy decisions. The County Health Rankings look at all the factors that affect health and encourage all sectors of a community to come together to work on solutions. If leaders in communities and states looked at health this way, just as Los Angeles did, healthier communities will lead to healthier people across the country.
I believe we’re at the beginning of a historic change in how we improve the public’s health. As we get closer to the March 2011 release of the Rankings, look out for more posts from me about the project, what’s happening across the country and how you can stay involved.
For more information on the County Health Rankings, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org.
Patrick Remington is the lead author of the County Health Rankings, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. He is associate dean for Public Health and Professor of Population Health Sciences at the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.