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Public health officials have tried mightily over the past decade to get America to change its unhealthy ways. No more marketing tobacco to teens, and we're constantly being told to exercise more and watch our weight. Well, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that all of these efforts have had little effect on the nation's health.
NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Stubborn is the word Charlotte Schoenborn uses to describe the health habits of U.S. adults.
Ms. CHARLOTTE SCHOENBORN (Statistician, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): It's amazing how hard it is to change these personal health behaviors and enormous resources have gone into education and programs to facilitate behavior change.
NEIGHMOND: But obviously not with great success, says Schoenborn, a statistician who works for the CDC. There has been a slight decline in smoking. Today, about 20 percent of Americans smoke. That's down from 23 percent a decade ago. Alcohol consumption is about the same as it was 10 years ago. White men and women drink the most, Asians the least. But overall the majority of adults, 61 percent, say they currently drink - a number that dramatically increases with income and education. Schoenborn...
Ms. SCHOENBORN: People with more education are more likely to drink. I mean, it's that simple. People with a bachelor's degree or a master's or doctorate, you know, any of the advanced, any of the four-year degree or higher, it's 73 to 74 percent of all adults.
NEIGHMOND: When it comes to exercise and weight, education also makes a difference. The more educated are more likely to exercise and have a healthy weight. Even so, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. And many doctors say these problems with health behaviors are even more distressing among children.
Pediatrician Amy Porter runs a weight management program for Kaiser Permanente. She says this may be the first generation of children who may not live as long as their parents.
Dr. AMY PORTER (Pediatrician): What used to be considered the adult diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, for sure we're seeing that in kids easily. We have kids in 12, 13, 14 years old who are already having these problems. Kids that are already, by the time they're 15 or 16, are having knee problems so badly they need to see orthopedics. And a lot of sleep apnea, which was never a problem in the pediatric population before.
NEIGHMOND: Problems that are cumulative and take their toll as children grow into adulthood. Research shows overweight children are likely to become overweight teens and overweight adults, which is why Porter wants to see a major cultural shift, a sort of in-your-face anti-obesity campaign like what happened with smoking.
A lot of people have quit smoking since public health campaigns began decades ago. And even though teens are gaining weight, they're not smoking like they used to. University of Michigan psychologist Lloyd Johnston runs an ongoing study that tracks the behavior of children between 13 and 18.
Dr. LLOYD JOHNSTON (Psychologist, University of Michigan): The most dramatic change has been among eighth graders, who in 1996, about 21 percent of them were current smokers. And by 2009, that had dropped to 6.5 percent, nearly a 70 percent decline.
NEIGHMOND: A change driven in part by prices and taxes on cigarettes. But, also, says Johnston, by successful public health messages that convinced kids that smoking was dangerous, not glamorous.
Dr. JOHNSTON: Today we see on the order of three-quarters of the teens say that they would prefer to date somebody who doesn't smoke. So, what used to be suggested as increasing your attractiveness to the opposite gender, today does exactly the opposite.
NEIGHMOND: Doctors like Amy Porter hope to see similar success with campaigns against obesity. Recent studies do indicate a plateau in the obesity epidemic, but not among the heaviest of young boys, who are only getting heavier.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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