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Morgan: Up to us to help our health
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Last week, I wrote about how current affairs and catastrophes in this world -outside our ability to predict or comprehend - suggest to some that we surrender all pretense of control and turn to things of the spirit - those things that change not despite the contractions and contortions of the world: love, truth, compassion, care and forgiveness.

However, today I want to say there are some things we can actually control or alter in our lives to positive effect. The "things" are related to our health, and our community's health.

A week ago in a story by Editor Tharon Giddens, we read that: "Newton County is a leader in Georgia in some unfortunate categories when it comes to health: obesity, smoking, teen birth rate and in the number of sexually transmitted diseases." Twenty-six percent of us smoke.

Thirty-two percent of adults here are obese.

Our teen birth rate is 62 per 1,000 births.

Sexually transmitted diseases here number 462 per 100,000. The state average is lower in each category but nothing to brag about.

Obesity, smoking, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are, in most cases, a result of personal choices and decisions by individuals. Choose the behavior; choose the outcome, as Dr. Phil says. To be absolutely fair, some teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are due to victimization of the young woman.

In most cases, someone becomes obese because they eat too much food - and too much of the wrong food - and lead sedentary lives. The following statement seems unkind despite its truth: Obese people are too often seen loading their buggies with cases of soft drinks, salty snack foods and heavily processed concoctions with nary a green vegetable or red apple to be seen. There are plenty of healthy options in local grocery stores and farmers' markets, but certainly not in convenience stores where many must shop from necessity. A family spends a little more than 30 percent of its food budget eating out, and in too many cases that means a fast-food drive through, fast yes, but nourishing, no.

It is also a personal choice to smoke or not to smoke, but you can't tell me there are not enough facts over all these years to provide immutable reasons not to smoke. Price alone would keep me from picking up the first cancer stick. Who can afford it? And who would consciously choose the residual effects: Shortened and unhealthy lives and, worse still, the ill effects on those who suffer second-hand smoke like little children cooped up in the family car. To smoke is a lousy personal choice and ought to be taxed out of existence, in my opinion, since the choice haunts all of us in higher medical and insurance expenses.

In the '90s there began a concerted effort in Georgia to tamp back rising teen pregnancy rates - Jane Fonda was the leading proponent - and it did, indeed, see success. The effort involved all social service agencies, schools, even the business community.

Something like that is what it will take in Newton County to turn around our wretched health standings: a full bore press.

Put our public health department at the forefront, but draft schools, churches, civic organizations and the business community.

Create a countywide consensus that health matters and individuals must assume personal responsibility. Make sidewalks and walking trails a priority focused on healthy lifestyles, not politics. Go back and build them where they don't exist.

Focus on Newton County's ability to produce healthy, homegrown foods and get those foods into our homes, schools and eateries. Develop more recreational choices in every quarter of the county so that teens have something more to do than sex as a default option. Educate parents and children about the results of their choices. It has been suggested that for the first time in history, this generation of parents will outlive their children because of the preponderance of health issues in children.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz is a nurse practitioner. "For the first time in history, it's predicted that parents of this generation will outlive their children" because of the health issues our children are developing, she says. "We have to recognize that unhealthy lifestyles create problems that hurt now and long into the future. The Chamber, for example, needs to recognize that the health of those who live here poses an economic development challenge. It could bankrupt us."

The same question exists for this and all the many challenges this county faces on the road to renewal: Who will provide the leadership? With declining county revenues, we will likely have to look beyond government for these answers. "We the people" may be the answer.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.