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Dr. C. Everett Koop Urges Congress to Tackle Causes of Preventable Deaths Identifies Tobacco Use, Obesity, and Alcohol Abuse as "Big Three"

Washington, DC; February 3, 1998--With roughly 70 legislative days before the 105th Congress plans to adjourn, Dr. C. Everett Koop -- the former U.S. Surgeon General -- traveled up to Capitol Hill today to speak plainly about the three health care issues that now account for the vast majority -- 75 percent -- of the preventable deaths in this country: tobacco use, poor diet and inactivity, and alcohol abuse.

Speaking at a news conference kicking off the new Congressional Prevention Coalition (CPC), Dr. Koop called on Congress not to lose sight of those issues that will most directly affect death and disease rates in the U.S. While proposals to reform the health care system are clearly important, the public health leader said that equally necessary is a clear set of legislative policies that will reduce preventable death and disease.

As a respected public health authority who continues to speak out about unresolved health issues, Dr. Koop said that tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable death, accounting for more than 420,000 lives lost each year. Right behind this problem are "poor diet and inactivity," which are responsible for the growing epidemic of obesity in America. Based on several published studies, the unhealthy weight that results from poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle account for 300,000 deaths a year.

"The link between obesity and an increased risk of premature death is similar to the association between smoking and lung cancer," said Dr. Koop, whose anti-obesity initiative, Shape Up America!, has been working to educate Americans and policymakers about the health consequences of an unhealthy weight. "If you are at an unhealthy weight, you face a higher risk of premature death."

Besides these two health problems where Dr. Koop has been focusing most of his energies, the misuse of alcohol and other addictive substances is the third-ranking cause of preventable deaths. Each year, the medical illnesses and injuries associated with alcohol and other drug abuse account for 120,000 preventable deaths.

Besides stressing the prevention of these three health problems, Dr. Koop called on Congress to help "the enormous number of people already afflicted": 45 million smokers, 58 million obese Americans, and 15 million to 20 million people who are alcohol or drug dependent.

"What can be expected for these people is years of suffering, unnecessary health care costs, and ultimately premature death," said Dr. Koop, adding that "This toll of chronic illness can be interrupted if Congress promotes the earliest possible intervention. Since a discussion of unhealthy behaviors needs to be a part of standard medical care, legislative initiatives can facilitate this intervention if the discussions become reimbursable."

Specifically, the health care leader said that alcohol screening and assessment in emergency departments, hospitals and other health care settings is rare in the U.S. Even more problematic, Dr. Koop said, is that little is being done to encourage early interventions that will help the patient understand the link between personal behaviors and the reduced risk for serious disease, disability and death.

"This is not a problem requiring additional fact-finding before action is taken," said Dr. Koop. "Developing a national prevention agenda clearly deserves the attention of policy makers and the medical community alike."

To drive home the importance of developing congressional policy to prevent specific diseases, like obesity, Dr. Koop's Shape Up America! initiative sponsored a "Know Your Body Mass Index (BMI)" health screening fair for congressional members and their staff as the first activity of the Congressional Prevention Coalition. Because BMI -- a measurement that takes into account both height and weight -- is an important indicator of health status, Shape Up America! measured the BMI's of congressional leaders to underscore the need to establish BMI as a screening tool with the same significance to public health as measuring blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

At the same time, the health screening fair exposed congressional members to experts in nutrition, physical activity, weight management and those disease organizations for which obesity is a comorbid condition -- meaning diseases that worsen as obesity increases or improves as obesity is treated. Coordinated by Shape Up America!, the fair provided information on obesity comorbidities from: the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Arthritis Foundation and the Diabetes Prevention Program. Other participants included: the American Obesity Association, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the Partnership for Prevention and Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS).

The newly created Congressional Prevention Coalition (CPC) was formed to advocate ways to integrate disease prevention and health promotion into our nation's health care system. Describing the CPC as "an idea whose time has come," Senator John H. Chafee (R-RI), one of the Co-Chairs, said: "As lawmakers from both parties join forces to tackle the challenges of health care this year, we must focus on the ways in which we can prevent Americans from getting sick, rather than just rely on the tried-and-true methods of treating illness once it occurs."

Added Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), another Co-Chair, "By investing in programs that stop young people from smoking, by providing incentives for people to exercise, by educating people about what foods to eat, we can help extend, and even save, the lives of millions of people."

The Congressional Prevention Coalition is being spearheaded by four founding Co-Chairs: Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), Senator John H. Chafee (R-RI), Representative Jim Leach (R-IA), and Representative Jim Moran (D-VA).