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March 21, 2005

Government Can Create Incentives for Healthy Behavior, Says Arkansas Governor

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Government can’t mandate the size of a cheeseburger to curb obesity or fine people for not exercising to cure heart disease, but it can set policies that create incentives for people to change their own behavior and lead healthier lives.

So says Governor Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas. On February 25, Huckabee delivered the 2005 J. Douglas Colman lecture at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, titled, “Can Government Force Changes in Behavior?”

One hundred years ago, Huckabee pointed out, the public health problem in the United States was infectious disease. Today, it’s chronic disease. “These chronic diseases are due to behavior: we smoke too much, we eat too much and we don’t exercise,” Huckabee said.

This is especially true in Arkansas, which has an especially high rate of diabetes, stroke, lung and heart diseases, and cancer. 

Huckabee doesn’t believe government can force people to change their behavior directly. “It doesn’t work when government becomes the grease police,” he said. “Americans don’t like it when there is a prohibition. It moves from an issue of health to an issue of personal rights,” he said. That’s why he advocates creating ways to make a healthy lifestyle an attractive option.

Last year, Huckabee announced the start of the Healthy Arkansas initiative in an effort to combat the health problem in the state and the runaway cost of Medicaid. Among other incentives, Arkansas is now giving state employees 30 minutes a day to exercise, and Medicaid will pay for tools for people to quit smoking. This year, Arkansas became the first to require schools to measure students' body mass index and send the information home to parents.

The crusade is personal as well. Two years ago, after a doctor diagnosed him with diabetes, Huckabee changed his lifestyle. “I felt I had to improve my own health to be a leader in this area.” He began exercising and eating healthier and has since lost 110 pounds and ran his first marathon.

Huckabee also created the ARKids First program, a nationally recognized initiative that provides health insurance to tens of thousands of children who previously had no access to health insurance. In 2000, he led a ballot initiative that devoted all of the state’s tobacco settlement money to improving the health of Arkansans.

“We have to change the health paradigm in America from treating diseases to preventing them,” he said.--Kristi Birch