MONTELLO - A mixture of coffee, mini-muffins and politics attracted several dozen Marquette County residents to a political forum Wednesday morning.

About 50 citizen attendees munched on a continental breakfast as they listened to health advocates and state Assembly candidates at the UW Extension County Services Center.

The forum was sponsored by health advocacy groups and health departments from Fond du Lac, Marquette, Waushara and Green Lake counties.

Among those present were 42nd District Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, and the three candidates for the 41st District seat: Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, Democratic candidate Scott Milheiser and independent Jay Selthofner.

The gathering featured presentations from county employees who described the financial and human losses caused by tobacco, alcohol and nutrition problems in Wisconsin. The candidates responded to each call for funding with cautious pledges to make health a legislative priority next year.

Nathan Luedke, director of the Marquette County Department of Health, said public health forums can potentially serve as a catalyst for improvement and important changes.

According to the most recent statewide health statistics, released in February by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Marquette County ranks 70th among Wisconsin's 72 counties in terms of its residents' overall health.

The state of Wisconsin ranked 49th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in its funding level for public health in 2008-09, according to the Trust for American Health, a nonprofit advocacy organization for public health issues.

In that year, Wisconsin spent $10.23 per capita on public health initiatives, roughly a third of the national median of $28.92 per capita.

Here are the main topics discussed at the forum, along with comments from candidates in attendance.

Tobacco

"Tobacco in Wisconsin is the No. 1 cause of preventable death, and it does not have to be," said Sandy Bernier, coordinator of Fond du Lac County's tobacco control program.

Bernier said the state should commit more funding to anti-tobacco campaigns and education. She pointed out that while Wisconsin raised its cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack last year, funding to programs fighting tobacco use decreased.

The state collects $700 million per year from cigarette taxes, but more than 90 percent of that goes into the general fund, leaving the state's tobacco prevention programs underfunded, Bernier said.

Clark called anti-tobacco programs "grossly under-funded," saying he would support those programs with more funding. Also, he was "concerned" about new packaging of tobacco flavors that seem aimed at children, and said all tobacco products should be taxed the same percentage rate as cigarettes.

Ballweg said diversion of cigarette tax money was "misuse of funds" and said she might look toward increasing taxes on casinos. She was concerned that tobacco prevention might take a hit when the Legislature deals with the projected $3 billion state budget deficit for next year.

Milheiser said: "I smoked for 25 years and I never went for a cherry-flavored, chocolate-covered cigarette. These are definitely being aimed at the young." He said all tobacco products should be taxed similarly.

Selthofner said he would provide more funding for tobacco prevention, generated from a cut of revenue gained from the legalized sale of marijuana and industrial hemp. He also added that all tobacco products should be taxed similarly.

Alcohol

Sue Shemanski, coordinator of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse for Waushara County Human Services, discussed the problem that alcohol is a staple of Wisconsin's culture and economy.

Alcohol causes 48,000 hospitalizations and 88,000 arrests each year in Wisconsin, Shemanski said. She said Wisconsin spends 10 percent of its annual budget fighting the negative effects of alcohol, mostly through the justice system.

"That is not dealing with drug and alcohol problems. That's putting them in jail," Shemanski said.

Clark said he favors metering statewide compliance checks to make sure vendors don't sell to minors.

Ballweg called for better education between grade school and college about alcohol abuse.

Milheiser said parents shouldn't be able to buy their underage children drinks in taverns. He supports compliance checks.

Selthofner said the problem lies in how people use alcohol, and alcohol abuse prevention should be a state priority.

Obesity

One out of four Wisconsin children is overweight or obese, and obesity costs the state roughly $1.5 billion every year, said Sara Gaitros, director of Women and Infant Children services for Family Health Medical and Dental Center.

Wisconsin invests nothing in obesity-specific prevention programing, while the national average is $130 million per state.

Gaitros said that projects such as the Farm to School program, approved (without funding) by the Legislature last year, would put healthy food into schools and stimulate the local economy.

"The younger we start, the more likely (children are) going to take on those healthy habits and keep them for a lifetime," she said.

Clark and Ballweg both said that before Wisconsin invests in any new programing, it should analyze programs it currently runs to promote healthy appetites and exercise.

Milheiser and Selthofner both said Wisconsin "needs to re-invent the wheel," with Selthofner saying the state needs to promote athletic activities such as dancing and martial arts. Both said the Legislature needs to secure funding for the Farm to School program.

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Editor, Portage Daily Register