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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Department of Health Director Nate Smith is shown in this file photo talking during a press conference.

Arkansas moved back up to No. 3 in the country in the percentage of adults considered obese last year as the rate reached a state record of 37.1%, according to a report released Thursday.

That rate was about 2 percentage points higher than the 35% of adult Arkansans in 2017 who were considered obese, based on their reported height and weight.

Although the rise wasn't considered statistically significant, it was enough to move the state up in the rankings from No. 7.

West Virginia and Mississippi, which held the top two spots in 2017, tied for the highest in 2018, with 39.5% of the adults in each state reporting measurements classifying them as obese.

Arkansas' increase came despite a yearslong campaign, endorsed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2015, to move the rate in the opposite direction.

Hutchinson said in a statement Thursday that the state has made progress.

"Arkansans are making healthier choices, and I believe that, in time, we will see these healthy choices reflected in the lifestyles of more and more Arkansans across the state," Hutchinson said.

The rankings are based on data from a federal survey and compiled in the annual "State of Obesity" report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Arkansas' obesity rate was also the third-highest in the country in 2016, although at that time it was lower, at 35.7%.

The latest report said obesity in the United States reached a "historic level" last year, with nine states having an adult obesity rate at or above 35%. A year earlier, seven states had rates that high.

In a tweet Thursday, Joe Thompson, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, called the report "a call to action."

He compared the threat with the rise in vaping among young people, which prompted the White House this week to move to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

"Other health issues like vaping are receiving needed attention from policymakers, but we also must renew and re-energize our fight against #obesity, a condition now reported in an alarming 37.1% of Arkansas adults," Thompson wrote.

In a phone interview, he said he was especially troubled that the percentage of adults with diabetes increased from 12.2% in 2017 to 14.1% in 2018 -- an increase that was considered statistically significant.

Diabetes, which is linked to obesity, "sets people up to have end-of-life problems with heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer," he said.

"That's what worries me the most, is that we're losing this battle," he said.

Among other measures, the report recommended expanding the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children to more people and increasing taxes on soda and other sugary drinks.

The 10-year Healthy Active Arkansas Plan calls on state agencies, businesses, schools and other entities to take steps, such as offering nutritious food and implementing workplace wellness programs, to help reduce the rate.

The year Hutchinson endorsed the plan, the State of Obesity report found that Arkansas' 2014 adult obesity rate, 35.9%, was the highest in the country.

Arkansas Department of Health Director Nate Smith said the state's efforts have included installing water bottle filling stations in schools and encouraging mothers to breast-feed, which reduces the risk of their children becoming obese as adults.

"A lot of our efforts have been focused toward changing norms for youth, and that's where we would expect to see the fruit of our efforts first," he said.

"There's a time delay before we'll really see the impact in adults."

Thompson said the state has made progress in encouraging better eating and exercise habits, but the changes need to become more widespread.

"My fear is that if we don't reverse this epidemic, it doesn't matter how we try to finance it, we won't be able to pay for enough of the care that's going to be caused by this epidemic," he said.

Data used in the rankings come from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, based on annual telephone surveys by state health departments of more than 400,000 adults nationwide.

An adult's height and weight are used to calculate a "body mass index" that determines whether a person is obese.

A 6-foot-tall person would be considered overweight if he weighed more than 184 pounds and obese if he weighed more than 221 pounds, according to the formula used to calculate the index.

The estimate of Arkansas' obesity rate had a margin of error of 2 percentage points in 2018 and 2.4 percentage points in 2017.

Using data from a different federal survey in 2016 and 2017, the State of Obesity report ranked Arkansas as tied with California and Tennessee for having the 20th-highest obesity rate, at 15.6%, among children ages 10-17.

The previous report, using data from just the 2016 survey, ranked Arkansas' rate of 19.1% in that age group as the eighth-highest in the country.

Photo by Cary Jenkins
Joe Thompson, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, is shown in this photo.

A Section on 09/13/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas' obesity rate yo-yos back to 3rd place

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