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Society for Public Health Education 62nd Annual Meeting

October 28, 2011
Washington, DC

Thank you. I am delighted to be here. I want to thank Elaine for her kind introduction, but more importantly for her leadership as a champion for public health education around the globe.

And I want to thank everyone here today for your commitment to giving families and communities the tools they need to build a healthy future for themselves and our nation.

For 60 years, the Society for Public Health Education has helped shape our country’s public health landscape. In that time, we have made great strides. Decades of research and practice have identified and improved methods to prevent disease and promote good health.

Conditions that had once been a death sentences are manageable today. The death rate for coronary heart disease has dropped more than 60 percent since 1950. The death rate for stroke has dropped 70 percent.

By ensuring clean water, clean air and safe food, designing communities to promote physical activity, and supporting better nutrition, we’ve given millions of Americans the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential.

Promoting good health is one of the most powerful investments we can make as a society. Healthy adults are more productive workers. Healthy children are better students. Healthy families can make bigger contributions to their communities.

And yet, for all the progress we’ve made over the last 6 decades. Too many Americans live sicker and die sooner than they should.

Our country provides some of the world’s best health care, and yet we still rank below many countries in life expectancy, infant mortality, and many other indicators of healthy life, especially chronic diseases.

If current trends continue, 1 out of every 3 babies born in the United States today will suffer from diabetes at some point in their life. And persistent health disparities continue to make the burden even greater for some racial and ethnic minority communities. Nearly 40 percent of African-American and Hispanic children are overweight or obese in our country.

If we want to continue to compete and thrive in the future, we need to do better.

When we look at the reason chronic diseases have taken such a big toll in the last few decades, health educators know that the first place to look is changes in our lifestyle and the world around us.

Many of us are eating bigger portions and more unhealthy foods. We’re snacking more and exercising less. Our kids are spending more time in front of the TV or computer screen and less time playing outside.

As a result, adult obesity has doubled and childhood obesity has tripled in just a generation. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that thanks to the work of health educators like you, we know that these behaviors are not set in stone.

People can change and they often want to change – but there’s a limit to what they’re willing or able to do.

They’ll buy healthy produce if they have a supermarket or farmer’s market in their neighborhood – but not if they have to take a bus across town. Parents will encourage their kids to play outside – but not if the local park is dangerous.

So one of the biggest steps we can take to reduce the burden of obesity and chronic disease is making it easier for people to make the healthy choice.

We need to get smart. And that’s where you come in. For years, you have been doing the important work of shaping policy and transforming communities through city halls and businesses, in hospitals and clinics, state legislatures, chambers of commerce, and community organizations.

What we’ve tried to do over the last two and a half years is take the lessons you’ve learned – and then help them spread.

To start, we know from many of your experiences just how important it is to make sure people have the best information possible.

People don’t always have time to read the nutrition facts on every box of cereal or snacks, especially when they have a kid tugging at their arm. So we’re working with the food industry to improve and standardize nutrition labeling on the front of packaging, so you don’t have take a magnifying glass and calculator with you every time you go to the grocery store.

And I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually goes online before they go out to eat in order to visit a restaurant’s website for its nutritional information.

So as part of the Affordable Care Act passed last year, we’re making sure that many restaurants put calorie information right there on the menu where customers can make easy comparisons.

And we’re not just thinking about nutrition. Last year, we launched our TXT-4-BABY campaign which uses mobile phone technology to provide hard-to-reach populations with important pre-natal and post-natal care information.

Since the program began, more than 225,000 mothers have received nearly 18 million health messages with health tips and reminders.

By giving people the best information possible to make informed choices, we are helping them take charge of their own health.

But promoting good health and preventing disease require more.

While knowledge is critical, communities must reinforce and support health by making healthy choices easy and affordable.

In the Obama Administration, we firmly believe that no single actor can solve these problems alone. The federal government cannot do it alone. City halls and schools cannot do it alone. Employers cannot do it alone. And community organizations cannot do it alone.

That’s why this summer we released our country’s first ever National Prevention Strategy.

Let me be clear, this is not just another report that will go up on the shelf with the rest. The National Prevention Strategy is this Administration’s commitment to take concrete action -- together with our partners in every sector -- to keep America healthy and fit.

That includes translating good data into best practices; targeting resources where they will have the greatest impact, and taking lessons learned from the front lines and helping them spread.

That is to say, we’re following the lead health education specialists.

For too long, you and your colleagues have not gotten the support, coordination or communication from the federal government that you deserve.

But that’s changing.

For example, through the Recovery and Affordable Care Acts, we’re reaching out to the cities and towns across America that have developed innovative approaches for promoting healthy lifestyles and giving them the resources to expand their efforts and eventually become models for the rest of the country.

Last month, I visited Arkansas and met the mayor of North Little Rock one of the communities that has received funds under these initiatives. In just a short time, they’ve made great progress.

They’ve adopted a new policy to ensure that all new and updated streets incorporate features such as bike lanes and safe sidewalks. They’re creating incentives for supermarkets to open in low-income and underserved neighborhoods. And just recently, they launched the city’s first Arkansas Certified Farmers Market.

This is how progress happens. A few more children decide to walk or ride their bike to school, instead of getting a ride, because now it’s safe. A few more families decide to prepare a healthy meal for dinner, instead of picking up some fast food take out, because now it is easier to pick up fresh ingredients nearby.

Eventually, these changes add up, and you get a healthier community. Then the neighboring city sees what’s happening and decides to steal some of their best ideas and add a few of their own. Eventually these communities add up and you get a healthy state, a healthy region, a healthy nation. But it happens one person, one school, and one city block at a time.

We’re also reaching out to foundations and private industry. Last month we launched Million Hearts, a groundbreaking initiative to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes over the next 5 years. It starts with $200 million in targeted funds from the CDC and CMS to support the common sense methods we know are proven to prevent heart disease and stroke.

But what’s really unique about this effort are the partners that have joined up. Under the campaign, Walgreens, for example, is providing blood pressure testing at no charge in consultation with its pharmacists and nurse practitioners. The YMCA is expanding its diabetes prevention program. And the American Heart Association is providing consumers access to its heart health management tools.

As health educators who work in businesses, schools, healthcare organizations, government settings and the non-profit sector, you know well that these are society-wide problems and if we’re going to solve them, everyone has a role to play.

Our challenge is not to conjure up out of thin air some new magic solution to chronic disease. The best, most innovative answers have already been developed by people like you. Our task is to find those pockets of excellence and help them grow.

In just a few moments, I will have the privilege of recognizing the winners of our Healthy Living Innovation Awards: public health leaders from around the country who have launched new initiatives already having an impact on the health and well-being of their communities.

We had hundreds of submissions and today’s winners not only showed results, they also showed how their work could be sustained and replicated.

By recognizing them today, we hope to help their good ideas take root and thrive.

But this goes beyond one contest. When it comes to building healthier communities, we need all the good ideas we can get. And on so many of the most urgent public health challenges we face today, it has been health educators blazing the path forward.

We have a long way to go. But we’ve also come a long way. And I look forward to working with you to build on that progress.