Putting healthier food in state office vending machines and increasing access to recreational facilities in schools and public buildings could be among proposals to boost health in Virginia, officials said Wednesday at a state Department of Health conference.
“Clearly, we have the opportunity to improve the health of our citizens through policies and laws,” state Health and Human Services Secretary Bill Hazel said during the daylong session at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
The event drew health officials, lobbyists, medical industry executives and community leaders. The ideas included implementing new policies, passing new laws and bringing together representatives of localities, businesses and others.
Making sure policies are appropriate and communicated properly is imperative, Hazel said.
“It’s about having better access, having trained professionals available, knowing what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
Existing policies should be reviewed to determine what succeeds and why, Hazel said.
“You have to wonder sometimes if some of the things we do work,” he said. “Much of that success seems to depend on the situations that individuals find themselves in. If they are poor, they have less resources and less access.”
Health officials are focusing on policies that include encouraging more physical activity, improving the availability of quality food and, in some cases, limiting access to less healthy foods. Proposals would include limiting food and beverages served in government buildings and schools to healthier items.
Behavior contributes to premature death in 40 percent of cases and genetic disposition is a primary contributor in 30 percent of cases, according to figures distributed at the conference and researched by the American Public Health Association, a lobby group.
Centers for Disease Control figures presented at the conference indicate that addressing poverty and implementing behavior-changing policies and laws, such as prohibiting smoking, taxing tobacco and eliminating trans fats, would have the largest impact on health.
Health officials suggested requiring healthier foods in vending machines in state offices and encouraging others to eat healthier foods. They also suggested encouraging fitness by providing more access to recreational facilities located in schools and public buildings and encouraging healthier behaviors.
Officials said some initiatives could require legislation.
State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine detailed the department’s process for developing public health policies, including gathering data, involving in deliberations those organizations and business that could be impacted by the policy, evaluating comments and results and determining best practices.
Just as important would be deciding whether to attempt to implement a policy, consider an alternative or drop it.
“It’s very difficult to change culture,” Levine said. “We are creatures of habit and creatures of culture. It’s very difficult to change, and evidence and data alone are not going to change that.”
Del. T. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, told the attendees that, while a policy proposal might make perfect sense from a health standpoint, decisions often are made for a variety of other reasons.
“There are some things that divide people because of how they play on the heartstrings,” he said. “There are some things that divide people based on funding. Our job is to have [people] believe in truly trying to create a better world than we have today. The world is run by those who show up.”