Harford County remains 10th in the state for overall health of its residents, with tobacco use and obesity continuing to be at least as high as the state average, according to a new report.
While the county's rank remained the same as last year, a drop of one notch from 2010 to 2012, local health officials say Harford is making gains in some areas.
"We are really on the right track. For the most part our health behaviors are either maintaining or improving," Bari Klein, health promotion specialist at Healthy Harford, said. "Public health is a large ship to turn and sometimes just maintaining current accomplishments is success."
The rankings she is referring to are from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's annual county health rankings, released last week, which showed 28 percent of Harford adults were obese as of 2010 and 18 percent of Harford adults use tobacco, as measured from 2006 to 2012. That places Harford in 12th place for tobacco use.
The county also ranked 16th for "physical environment" and 17th for housing and transit.
About 83 percent of Harford residents drive alone to work, for example, and 50 percent report a long commute, higher than the state averages of 73 percent and 47 percent, respectively.
"I think clearly what we see provides us with some basis for results in the county but there's so much... that is not under our control with regard to the health outcomes and the health behaviors," William Wiseman, the county's health department spokesman, said.
The rankings would not account for any accomplishments by the county's new task forces on obesity or tobacco, which were formed in 2011.
It could take five to 10 years for those initiatives to sway any statistics, Klein said.
"Anecdotally, we are already seeing the changes," Klein said, citing greater community interest in healthier lifestyles and shifts in items like restaurant menus.
"There is a higher awareness, higher interest" in health, she said.
The study, which is meant to help communities identify their health priorities, shows Harford knows what to address, she said.
"I think what this says for our county is that we are focusing on the right areas," she said. "I think in the next few years, the data is going to reflect the work we are presently doing in the community, and the numbers will improve."
Tobacco use, for example, is difficult to fight because much of it is tied to stress and other mental health factors, she said.
The county's tobacco task force has been focusing on policy, including making places like government buildings, Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and The Arena Club smoke-free, she said.
"Policy can only go so far, protecting children, public air space and enforcing non-smokers rights not to be exposed to second-hand smoke," Klein said. "An individual's decision to smoke, even after knowing the health risks, is a personal one, and the desire to quit has to be there for any chance at success."
Wiseman said he is still "very discouraged" about the tobacco rates, but he pointed out the study only accounts for adult smoking.
The county did jump from ninth to sixth place for overall health factors, which represent aspects that influence health and include tobacco use, diet and exercise, sexual activity and alcohol and drug use.
"It's encouraging that we see some improvement," Wiseman said, adding county residents are "pretty well-insured" and have above-average income.
"The results are pretty consistent with what we have seen in previous years," he said.
The study "is a valuable instrument, it's one we look forward to having, but it's clearly not a comprehensive look at the status of a community, by virtue of things that are included or excluded," Wiseman said.
Klein noted that other counties are still struggling to make health-related gains.