Philly: Fat, Unhealthy and Drunk

Is there anything we can do about it?

“Everybody has cancer in South Philly.”

A guy said this to me on East Passyunk once, pointing to the cigarette butts that litter the avenue. (If you didn’t know, cigarettes cause cancer!) A lot of people smoke in Philly, 25 percent of the adult population. But smoking isn’t our only issue. According to a new report from County Health Rankings, Philadelphia ranks poorly in adult obesity, physical inactivity and excessive drinking.

Philadelphia: We’re fat, we don’t work out and we get drunk all the time.

Okay, so that sounds like a pretty good time. And Philadelphians should be used to finishing low in rankings. Just earlier this year, Men’s Health rated our city 98th out of 100 in its Worst Cities for Men list. To show you how numb we are to these things: Detroit–Detroit!–was 97th and this embarrassing slight barely made a splash in the media here.

But maybe this one should. This isn’t Men’s Health; the County Health Rankings and Roadmap is a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, two very impressive-sounding places that to my knowledge have not published an article titled “5 Weird Things That Make You Horny.” (No. 1 is Twitter.) Philly ranks last of all counties in Pennsylvania in health in the program’s annual report. Cities don’t do well in this report–The Bronx is last in New York and Baltimore’s last in Maryland, for example–but this has major public health implications.

The report offers plenty of suggestions, even going as far as discussing how to write a solutions-oriented op-ed. (Don’t worry, regular readers! This column strives to be as solutions-free as usual.) What’s encouraging is how many of the suggestions–smoking bans, posted calorie counts, reducing bus emissions, bike lanes,  encouraging mixed use development–the city is already doing. Of course, putting bike lanes on Pine Street is pretty easy; getting people to eat better and exercise more, improving education and decreasing violence is hard, maybe impossible.

Let’s look at health. Eating healthy is hard enough in my obnoxiously stress-free middle class lifestyle. It’s hard for me to imagine how hard it would be for people with real problems or with money issues. Mayor Nutter and the city have done admirable work with places like The Food Trust to improve access to healthy food in poor neighborhoods and decrease cost.

The proposed soda tax, of course, is what gets attention. The mayor recently said the tax was dead for this year and maybe it’s done for good. Although it’d disproportionately affect the poor (like cigarette taxes), it seems the Philly soda tax is a good idea, but any tax increase on a popular product is going to be impossible to pass.

So how to get the focus on public health aside from soda taxes? When I was in Toronto last month, the city was enthralled in making fun of Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, who weighs 300-plus pounds and has been on a very public weight loss campaign. Okay, “enthralled” is too strong a word, and maybe the nice people I met in Toronto were just humoring my fascination with it.

Yes, local politicians would be loathe to repeat an idea from Mayor Street, but there’s not going to be a groundswell of support for increased public spending on public health anytime soon. Why not a public campaign of embarrassment for our city’s politicians to draw attention to obesity?

If Toronto is any indication, it will go hilariously badly. The mayor gained weight last week; The Globe and Mail writes it “has gone from a feel-good public-health campaign to a depressing weekly ritual in which the mayor watches his weight inch up or down slightly while the city hall press gallery lobs unrelated questions at him.” Hey, maybe some public weight loss failures would draw attention to how deep this problem really is.

Now, about that disappointing Pew report