June 11, 2006
Miss. Governor Aims for Healthier State

Filed at 1:37 p.m. ET

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- After growing up in the Deep South, Gov. Haley Barbour is no stranger to fried chicken, syrupy candied yams and crumbly buttermilk cornbread.

But Barbour, who often takes good-natured ribbing about his ample frame, is concerned about his state's growing reputation as one of the fattest, unhealthiest states in America.

On Wednesday, Barbour will be host of the Healthy Mississippi Summit, where state and national experts will discuss ways to promote nutrition and an active lifestyle. The goal is a statewide approach similar to programs already operating in Arkansas, Michigan and elsewhere.

And taking a cue from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- who lost 110 pounds to improve his health, after starting at 290 -- Barbour says he'll lead by example.

''A lot of people will probably judge the seriousness of the program by how the governor acts,'' Barbour told The Associated Press, without specifically saying he was going on a diet and without giving his weight.

Mississippi leads the nation in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease -- ailments that normally can be avoided through diet and exercise.

Barbour says that what is at stake goes beyond an individual's quality of life.

''The chronic disease burden in our state dramatically increases the cost of Medicaid and Medicare. Businesses lose money because employees miss work,'' Barbour said. ''We know that we have tens of thousands of people who are in bad health because of their behavior.''

This fiscal year, it cost $3.8 billion to operate Mississippi Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled. It covers about 748,000 people, or about one in every four Mississippians.

Nationwide, chronic diseases cause 700,000 deaths a year, costing the economy $117 billion a year.

Yale obesity expert Dr. David Katz, one of the speakers for the summit, said obesity is prevalent in Mississippi because it has more poverty to contend with than other states. Nearly 20 percent of the state's residents are below the poverty level.

''Combine educational and economic hardships with the obesigenic factors that abound and you have a perfect storm of irresistible, adverse influences,'' Katz wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

Minorities appear to be more susceptible. Katz said one of the most startling trends he's seen is that about half of African-Americans born in the United States in 2000 or after are projected to develop diabetes.

Shawn Newsome, a 33-year-old black man struggling to lose weight to control his diabetes, is aware of the risks. The Jackson resident once weighed 300 pounds but has lost 30 pounds over the past year.

''You think about what's going to happen to your body. Are you going to lose your eyesight or your kidneys or a limb?'' said Newsome.

He believes publicizing the health effects of excess weight is the best way to get people's attention. ''Then people have to make a choice themselves to get in shape and watch what they're eating. They can die just from their diet,'' Newsome said.

Barbour plans a statewide program aimed at school children, state employees, church members and other groups. He said 25 churches have been recruited for a pilot program to help their members learn more about diet and exercise.

He said the programs will be of little cost to the state and would actually save taxpayer dollars by helping to reduce the need for hospitalization and medications.

Katz said it's too early to gauge the effectiveness of other states' government-sponsored health initiatives.

Caryl Sumrall, director of a diabetes clinic at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, said the governor's summit is a good idea.

''Whether we're a taxpayer or a health care provider, it affects all of us,'' said Sumrall. ''If we become complacent then the problem can actually get worse than it already is.''