Harford County is fairly healthy, though more than 60 percent of its adults and children are classified as either overweight or obese, a rate that has tripled since 1996, according to the health department.
Harford also ranks worse than the rest of the state on seven of 39 health objectives, and continues to struggle with obesity, Harford County health officer Susan Kelly told the county council Tuesday.
Those items include the seasonal flu vaccine rate for adults (the county is ranked first in the state for vaccinating children), heart disease and cancer mortality rates, adult and youth tobacco use and emergency department admissions for behavioral health issues and Alzheimer's disease.
Kelly identified obesity as a major problem, and the county council approved an Obesity Prevention Task Force that will consist of 15 members representing restaurants, grocery stores, nutritionists, physicians, farmers, fitness specialists and various county departments.
The task force will present an interim report by May 1, 2012, and a final report by Oct. 2, 2012.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who introduced the legislation, said it was "staggering" to learn during the course of her work with Healthy Harford that more than 60 percent of adults and children in the county are obese or overweight, and that the rate has tripled since 1996.
"It is my belief that obesity is the seatbelt issue of this decade," she said.
Harford County has an average combined overweight and obesity rate of about 62 percent. That means 62 percent of county residents are either overweight or obese.
An average of 36.5 percent of residents are overweight, which is slightly more than the national average of 34 percent.
Councilman Jim McMahan asked to be added as a co-sponsor of the resolution, and said it had personal significance for him, as he was obese for many years and ultimately had gastric bypass surgery.
"This decision perhaps is not for everybody, but it was for me," he said, adding he lost 112 pounds with the surgery, after weighing more than 300 pounds.
As an educator, Councilman Dick Slutzky said, he recognized the "unique challenge" of getting people to be more physically fit or stop smoking.
"I, quite frankly, don't know which one is going to be more difficult," he said.
Councilman Dion Guthrie noted the many vending machines, such as those in library branches, that children use to get sugary snacks and sit around eating them without exercise.
"I think we need to take a look at what we sell in our public buildings," he said.
Kelly said Harford adults are clearly not eating the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended number of fruits and vegetables per day.
The number of adults who say they do not eat any fruit on a daily basis has also steadily grown, to 10.5 percent in 2010, she said.
Meanwhile, 52 percent of those surveyed said they ate fast food once or twice per week.
Another 35 percent said they never eat fast food.
In another sign of health disparity, the number of people who do not participate in any moderate activity rose by 5 percent, but the number of people who say they exercise every day nearly doubled.
"Obesity is the new public health challenge," Kelly said.
She said the county would save $12 million per year, in terms of days lost from work or other productivity measures, if Harford residents raised their activity levels by just 5 percent.
She said 42 percent of men and about 30 percent of women are overweight, and 11 percent of all adults in Harford have diabetes.
As part of the Healthy Harford initiative, the health department recommended a resolution to develop obesity prevention and sent a letter to the county's planning and zoning department supporting increased "walkability and bikeability" in the county.
"The suggestions have been incorporated into the land use plan that is out there currently for public comment," Kelly said, referring to the draft 2012 master plan that is online for public comment through Nov. 10.
Of the top causes of death in Harford — cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes – tobacco use seems to be a major factor, Kelly said.
Harford's total cancer mortality rate is 185.8 deaths per 100,000. The rate for Maryland is 177.7.
Kelly called Harford's higher smoking rates "very disturbing" in light of all the information available about the dangers of tobacco.
The top cancers are lung and breast cancers.
"Those two we really need to look at, but if you think about it, lung cancer is very much associated with smoking," Russell Moy, deputy health officer, said. "It's distressing in Harford County that we do worse than the state average."
Moy said those numbers do have a racial component: the cancer mortality rate is 190 per 100,000 for blacks and 185 per 100,000 for whites.
"With cancer, we need to zero in on what are the causes," Moy said, pointing again to stroke and chronic pulmonary disease also being connected with tobacco use.
"It's almost not a mystery what we need to zero in on," he said.