We must work together for health

Butte County’s health officer on the importance of healthy options

The author, an M.D., is Butte County’s health officer.

Walk into your nearest corner market or convenience store and what do you see? There’s usually a wall filled with every kind of tobacco product imaginable, most in colorful packaging and flavors like grape and bubble gum. You’ll also find a refrigerated case full of sodas, energy drinks and other sugary beverages. More refrigerated items include fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages and slushies in colorful packaging. On the counter, you’ll see small energy drinks (“shots”) alongside candy and gum. Aisle after aisle is filled with snack foods—things like chips, cookies, candy and other junk food.

Sound familiar? It should, as many convenience stores in Butte County fit this mold. A recent survey of tobacco retailers conducted by the Butte County Health Department found that 90 percent of our convenience stores sell candy-, mint- or liquor-flavored tobacco products, and 90 percent sell alcohol. More than 70 percent of stores have unhealthy exterior advertising (mostly for tobacco, alcohol and sugary beverages) but only 10 percent have healthy exterior advertising. Less than half of stores sell nonfat or low-fat milk, and only 38 percent sell any fresh fruit or vegetables, yet three-quarters sell sugary beverages right at the checkout.

Next week (April 7-13) is National Public Health Week, the perfect time to point out that most of our convenience stores are filled with all kinds of unhealthy products, and very few healthy options.

Why does this matter? It matters because consumption of these unhealthy products is making us sick and killing us. Over 18 percent of Butte County adults smoke, compared with 14 percent statewide, and we have high rates of lung cancer deaths to show for it. Almost two-thirds of Butte County adults are overweight or obese, and many have developed diabetes or heart disease as a result.

Some may argue that it is an individual’s responsibility to make healthy choices, and that is true. But it is also true that we are influenced by our environment, and our food environment has become unhealthy. It has become easier to buy fruit-flavored sugary beverages than to buy fresh fruit. It has become more convenient to buy alcohol than apples.

We can’t simply blame the retailers; they are just the middlemen. All of us—those who produce and promote unhealthy products, those who sell them, and those who consume them—have created this problem, and we will all need to work together to turn it around.