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Harford County continues to rank worse than the rest of the state in several health factors, including high drug-use rates and deaths from cancers caused by poor lifestyles, the county's health officer said.

Although Harford ranked better than the state average in many health indicators, such as teen birth rates and uninsured emergency visits, the county is still struggling with 15 of 39 measures identified by the 2015 State Health Improvement Process data, health officer Susan Kelly told the County Council in her regular report Tuesday night.

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Harford is the fourth worst county for the number of adults at a healthy weight in the state, with fewer than 29 percent of adults at a healthy weight between 2011 and 2013.

The county has higher death rates from cancer, suicide, drugs and falls than the state, according to the report.

Cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, remain the leading causes of death in Harford, Kelly reported.

"Fighting these diseases, it's not just about treatment, it's about prevention, and that is what the public health message is about," she said. "We are already doing a very good job of that."

Mortality rates for cancer, heart disease, COPD and suicide have steadily dropped since 2007 but they mostly remain higher than the rest of the state, Kelly said. It was "particularly alarming" that suicide rates remain "significantly worse" than the rest of the state, she said. Heart disease mortality rates have recently decreased to become on par with the state average.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Harford 10th of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions for health outcomes in 2015 and sixth for health factors.

The actual underlying causes of death, however, can largely be attributed to tobacco use, alcohol use and obesity, Kelly said.

"Yet we have an adult population that continues to smoke," she said.

More than 40 percent of cancers are preventable, with tobacco use and obesity or poor diet posing the highest risk for cancer among lifestyle behaviors, she said.

The county's rates of tobacco use have also been dropping, from 21.7 percent of adults in 2012 to 16.9 percent in 2013, Kelly said. Those numbers, though remain higher than the rest of the state, even though the Maryland average for adult smoking rose slightly from 16.2 percent to 16.4 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Teen tobacco use was also worse in Harford than elsewhere, with 14.8 percent of teens smoking cigarettes and 15 percent smoking cigars in 2013. Meanwhile, 35.7 percent of Harford teens used alcohol in 2013, versus 31.2 percent in the rest of the state and 34.9 percent in the nation overall.

The number of newborns exposed to drugs or alcohol shot up between 2000 and 2013, with Harford seeing a 45 percent increase in drug-exposed babies during that time period.

Adults in Harford are less physically active, with 46.4 percent regularly moving, versus 48 percent of the state average and 50.5 percent in the U.S. as a whole in 2013, according to the report.

Kelly said her department continues to work with community organizations and do outreach to try to tackle the leading causes of death in the county.

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She thanked Council President Dick Slutzky for the suggestions and input he made while sitting on the county's tobacco task force group.

She said the county needs to do more outreach to different groups of people, "particularly minority groups."

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