The past decade has brought improved medical technology, services and access, yet the average life expectancy has declined.

The Governor's Public Health Commission released its initial report in July focusing on multiple areas. It points out that life expectancy gains achieved in the 20th Century were largely attributable to public programs and intervention.

But it calls to attention the troubling fact that Indiana’s life expectancy has been declining since a 2010 peak of 77.5 years. In 2019, Hoosiers’ life expectancy, at 77 years, was almost two years below the national average, giving the state a 40th ranking.

The report highlights public health concerns contributing to the decline, including:

• Rising deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide
• Rising rates of adult and child obesity
• Persistently high rates of adult tobacco use and teen vaping
• Continuing risks from drug-resistant disease agents and infectious diseases such as measles, hepatitis, tuberculosis, HIV/ AIDS, COVID-19 and others – each with the potential to spread rapidly across the state, across the country and around the world.

Indiana consistently ranks in the bottom tier for states in public health metrics, according to the report. The commission asserts that such problems contribute to “unnecessary suffering, lost productivity and weaker communities.”

Funding is an issue.

“Chronic underfunding and fragmentation of the public health system are now reducing those life expectancy gains,” the commission states in the report.

The commission set a goal of increasing Indiana’s per capita spending of $55 per person on health care to the national average of $91 per person.

This is where the Indiana Legislature can help. Lawmakers can identify funding to address these issues, from bolstering local health departments to deal with infectious diseases to providing more money for education on substance abuse, obesity and tobacco use.

Speaking of tobacco, Indiana hasn’t raised its tax on a pack of cigarettes since 2007. The state’s tax is almost $1 less than the national average of $1.91 per pack.

As former State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Feldman recently wrote in a column, increasing the tobacco tax would serve two purposes: providing funding for health initiatives, and discouraging Hoosiers from smoking.

Both of those outcomes would improve public health in Indiana.

The opioid epidemic has ravaged communities, killing thousands of people including Hoosiers. Indiana recently garnered millions in settlement funds from prescription drug and pharmacy companies, which will help those battling addiction. Lawmakers should leverage those funds with more state money to treat and prevent addiction.

While these actions would cost taxpayers upfront, they could save money in the long run. More importantly, they could save lives. The Legislature could also utilize surplus funds for public health initiatives.

But the government can’t solve every problem. The commission’s report points out health issues that we can control.

Better choices can reduce obesity rates. Parental supervision can thwart underage alcohol use as well as substance abuse. Vaccinations can reduce community spread of many infectious diseases.

Indiana is heading the wrong way in terms of health. As the new year approaches, let’s resolve to live longer, healthier lives.

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