In a lengthy story on the “longevity gap” between whites and blacks, the Los Angeles Times noted the difficulty in pinpointing the causes for the differences between the life expectancies of whites and blacks in California. The article was written in response to the recent release of a study called “Death in the Golden State” saying that the study “raised as many questions [about longevity gaps between races] as it answered.” After reading the Times article however the biggest question is how one could publish an article about life expectancies and not reference either smoking or obesity even once.
Despite noting that “heart disease and cancer were the leading causes of death among all California adults ages 25 and older,” neither the Times nor any of the sources that it selectively quoted mentioned either the longevity killers smoking and obesity even though the link between these activities and premature death are well-documented. From the United States Department of Health and Human Services:
Individuals who are obese (BMI > 30) have a 50 to 100% increased risk of premature death from all causes, compared to individuals with a healthy weight.
And from the AHA:
Cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. It accounts for nearly 440,000 of the more than 2.4 million annual deaths.
The “Death in the Golden State” report itself (which the Times did not link to but can be found here) stated that “Heart disease is responsible for the largest difference in life expectancy between black and white men (30%)” and “Death rates from heart disease are approximately 40 percent higher among black men, and 50 percent higher among black women, than they are among whites.”
And, as it turns out, there is a significant differential in smoking/obesity by whites and blacks in California that could be material factors in the longevity gap. Black men are almost 50% more likely than white men to be a current smoker (25.2% to 18.7%) or to be obese (28.1% to 19.8%). This information was in the report but remarkably not in the Times story.
Instead of these lifestyle issues however the Times zeroed in on poverty and racism as the causes to highlight. They did this by selectively quoting sources who had their own agendas to drive from the findings.
Bob Prentice, director of the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, noted:
“If they continue to live in poor neighborhoods and experience the legacy of racism, though in a different way than African Americans, then in fact their health may get poorer.”
Dr. Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, a private foundation devoted to healthcare solutions for the poor, was quoted saying:
“…a pretty complicated souffle of poverty and racism and education and health issues.”
“The lion’s share of what explains health status and life expectancy has to do with non-healthcare factors. That’s when you get into the quality of the environment, poverty, racism and some messier factors.”
A third source, Dr. Toni Yancy, who was from the UCLA School of Public Health Center to Eliminate Health Disparities, had his own non-obesity/smoking slant.
Obesity and smoking are problems that cross all ethnicities, income levels, and geographical locations. While differences in percentages may vary, obesity in specific is an epidemic threatening to overwhelm our health care system even more than it is already overwhelmed. By failing to note the role of smoking and obesity in the reduced longevity of black men and women in lieu of their more favored slant of racism, poverty, and educational opportunities, the Times shows that it is as much of the problem as Joe the Camel and 64-ounce Big Gulps. In hiding these factors the Times does an extreme disservice to the very communities that, according to this report, are in most need of help.
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