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Prevention Institute

Health Reform Rapid Response: May 5, 2014

Media Coverage Helps Tell the Story: Too Many Are Dying Too Early

Here’s the bad news. Americans continue to die prematurely from causes that are preventable. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the almost 900,000 Americans who die before the age of 80 each year from the top five causes of death—heart disease, cancer, asthma and respiratory disease, stroke and unintentional injuries. The study found that anywhere from 21 percent of cancer deaths to 39 percent of deaths from heart disease or unintentional injury could have been prevented.

These deaths aren’t occurring at random either; they are grouped geographically and disproportionately strike the disadvantaged. For example, more than half of the heart-disease deaths in Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee could have been prevented, the CDC data suggest. By comparison, fewer than 4 percent of heart-related deaths in Utah, Minnesota, and Colorado were seen by the CDC as preventable. The report paints a stark picture of how American inequality literally kills.

One obvious difference between Alabama and Minnesota, of course, is that 26 percent of Alabama residents are black and 17 percent are in poverty, while, in Minnesota, 5.5 percent percent are black and 9.8 percent are poor. But another difference is in the arena of policy, and that brings us to two pieces of good news. Through the hard work of advocates, researchers and far-sighted officials, some states and cities are adopting policies that emphasize prevention. And the media is getting better at noticing and reporting on the impact of policy and of inequity. Articles about the new CDC findings illustrate the point.

Prevention in the News:

The USA Today story headlined CDC: Lifespan more to do with geography than genetics noted the “huge range in the death rates across American states, driven by public policy, regional habits and socioeconomics” and captured some powerful quotes from CDC Director Tom Frieden.

“Your longevity and health are more determined by your ZIP code than they are by your genetic code," Frieden said. "These deaths are not random. They are clustered by geography. That's a reflection of the huge impact that healthier policies can have."

In the same vein, an article in Time headlined Nearly Half of US Deaths Can Be Prevented With Lifestyle Changes quotes Frieden as follows:

“There are far too many places in this country where just by the unfortunate fact that you live there you are much more likely to die from a preventable cause. You don’t have to move geographically, but we do have to move in terms of policies and programs.”

When the media explain the importance of the policies and systems that affect people’s health, advocates for a better health system know that the conversation is moving in the right direction.

Some articles failed to note the impact of policy or to probe the meaning of the geographical differences captured by the study and focused instead on personal choices made by individuals. A piece in the Los Angeles Times article started by noting, in its lead paragraph, that “health disparities in the U.S. lead to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths” but doesn’t explore the nature of these disparities or probe their underlying causes. The article also says:

“Americans need to exercise more, eat better, lose weight, quit smoking, use sunscreen and wear seat belts in cars and helmets when riding bicycles or motorcycles. They also need to work with their doctors to reduce their cholesterol, control their blood pressure and keep their Type 2 diabetes in check, the researchers advised.”

While this is undoubtedly true, it puts the onus on the individuals and fails to note that some states and communities have much stronger policies to limit smoking, promote healthy foods in school and require the wearing of helmets. Health disparities aren’t simply individual problems – they’re social problems with historical roots that demand a robust public response.

Here’s what you can do:
  • Share these articles on social media, with your opinions on why they matter.
  • Leave a comment on the USA Today article, the Los Angeles Times piece or other articles you find on this study.
  • Write a letter to the editor praising these articles for what they got right or letting them know what they forgot to include. Speak out in favor of policies and practices that need to be changed to eliminate preventable and inequitable deaths. For guidance, see our tips on writing Op-Eds and letters to the editor. Write a letter to USA Today here and the Los Angeles Times here. If you get something published, let us know!

PI Commentary Published in Modern Healthcare

“The U.S. healthcare system is in the midst of a transformation—some would say a revolution—that I've waited my whole career to see." So begins a commentary from PI’s Larry Cohen in a recent issue of Modern Healthcare, a national magazine covering the healthcare industry. Read it here.

Five Lessons from 50-Year Effort to Prevent Smoking and Save Lives

PI's Larry Cohen and Rob Waters shared lessons from that 50-year effort to reduce smoking in a blog that appeared in Forbes and Huffington Post.

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