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Report warns of drug use in Massachusetts

Progress being made on other health care issues

In Massachusetts, more overweight children are losing weight and violent crime has dipped, but much remains to be done in those and other health-related concerns, including drug abuse, according to the Massachusetts Health Council, which released its seventh statewide wellness report Tuesday.

“Clearly this report tells us, it’s a map, of what remains to be done. . . . We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot of work to do,’’ state Senator Harriette Chandler, a co-chair of the Prevention on Health Caucus, said during an event at the State House marking the release of the report, called Common Health for the Commonwealth.


The report is aimed at guiding policy, to provide a “context and a series of benchmarks for policy makers on Beacon Hill when they consider health care matters,” said Susan Servais, the council’s executive director.

One alarming element of the report is substance abuse, particularly heroin. Eastern Massachusetts had the highest rate of emergency room visits involving illicit drugs than any metropolitan region in the United States, according to the report, and the region also ranked first in emergency room visits involving heroin use.

On the South Shore, one person dies of an overdose every eight days, the report states. In Worcester, lifetime heroin use is twice the state and national average, according to the report.

“These issues are preventable and it really takes a community effort,’’ said Karen Johnson, the coordinator of substance abuse prevention programs for the Worcester Department of Public Health.

Johnson said Worcester officials took a closer look at the problem of opiate overdoses in 2009, and developed a strategy, which is now being implemented, with the Police Department’s vice squad, which is doing outreach to halfway houses and other substance abuse agencies.

One strategy, aimed at cutting down on the number of overdose deaths, is an educational campaign about 911, letting people know that callers who report drug overdoses will not be prosecuted because they are protected under Good Samaritan laws.


According to the study, tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the state, with about 9,000 people dying annually from its effects.

Stephen Shestakofsky, executive director of Tobacco Free Mass, an organization that is part of the council, unfolded a display of colorful and inexpensive tobacco products he said are aimed at youth.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve really made a dent in use . . . but it’s still taking an extremely high toll that is totally preventable,’’ Shestakofsky said.

Shestakofsky said smokeless products, including lollipops containing nicotine, and flavored cheap cigars, are being used more by youths.

“Kids can’t afford cigarettes anymore, but they can afford these products,’’ he said. “They still lead to death and significant health issues.”

With regard to obesity, the state introduced “Mass In Motion” in 2009 to encourage residents to exercise and eat healthy.

Now, 52 communities representing a third of the state’s population have adopted the program.

Somerville implemented a weight reduction program called “Shape Up Somerville,” a campaign to increase physical activity and encourage healthy eating, resulting in a 33 percent drop in the number of obese and overweight residents.

“Springfield said, ‘come out here, we want to shape up, too,’ ” Servais said, referring to Springfield’s adoption of a similar initiative.

“The reaction for the most part when people see these numbers, is ‘oh my goodness, how can we do that?’ ’’ Servais said.


Figures on crime show a 13 percent decline in violent crime in the state’s five largest cities, Boston, Cambridge, Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester.

Randall Halstead, a Boston police deputy superintendent, sat with all the health care presenters, and in his dark uniform presented a contrast to those suited officials.

But his message was similar — that community involvement is key to a positive outcome.

He spoke of several department initiatives, including “Cease Fire,” which connects soon-to-be released felons serving time for violent offenses to social service programs aimed at linking them with jobs, educational opportunities, housing, and substance abuse prevention programs.

“I would be happy to share what we do here across the state, across the country,” he said.

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.