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By acting to address health equity, Cleveland City Council helps us all live healthier lives

(This originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 17, 2020)

Speaking for the Cleveland Division of the American Heart Association’s board of directors, we are heartbroken by the devastation wrought by COVID-19 as well as inequities in access to opportunity and health care that recent events have highlighted. However, we are reassured and energized by recent actions taken to respond to these crises by Cleveland City Council.

In communities across the United States, it is easy to distinguish between areas that have benefited from high levels of public and private investment and those that have received less. Communities that receive low investment — often based on residents’ race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and other factors — are rife with structural problems that limit opportunities for everyone to reach their potential and optimal health. There are stark differences in access to grocery stores, safe drinking water and green spaces. There are disparities in the quality — and environmental health — of early-education programs and public schools.

Therefore, we applaud City Council’s resolution, championed by Health Committee Chairman Blaine Griffin and Councilman Basheer Jones, declaring racism and racial inequity a public health crisis. Racial disparities in heart disease and other chronic health conditions exist, and African Americans are more likely than whites to be uninsured. There is also evidence that their physical and mental health is negatively impacted by these inequities.

City Council has also shown they are committed to taking necessary next steps by introducing policies to address health inequities related to race. One of these was the introduction on July 1 of Ordinance 524-2020, a healthy default drinks ordinance for restaurant kids’ meals. Although many families consume meals out of the home, and eating out is linked to poorer diet, low-income children and children of color are disproportionately impacted.

Passage of the healthy default drinks policy will instill healthy drinking norms and offer further protections for local kids by ensuring that healthy drink options are offered as a default in bundled kids’ meals.

To address health equity in heart disease and stroke, we can’t stop there. City Council can establish a tobacco retail license to fully implement the city’s “Tobacco 21″ law passed in 2015, and pass an updated Complete Streets policy, including specific health equity language to invest in historically underserved neighborhoods.

The American Heart Association has championed health equity for all people for nearly a century, and we are more determined than ever to eliminate racial and class disparities in health access and outcomes.

We applaud the steps taken so far and look forward to supporting Cleveland City Council in creating public policy needed to achieve these goals as a community.

Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew is board president of the American Heart Association’s Cleveland Division and the director and Edgar B. Jackson Jr. Endowed Chair in Clinical Excellence & Diversity at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine/ University Hospitals of Cleveland.

Posted Friday, July 24, 2020

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