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Southwest Pa. is safe, prosperous; struggles with poor air quality, obesity, report finds

| Wednesday, April 8, 2015, 11:23 a.m.

People living in Southwestern Pennsylvania have plenty to boast about: This region has above-average rates of high school and college graduates, below-average rates of crime and violence and an unemployment rate on pace to drop to its historic low of 4.1 percent, according to a University of Pittsburgh report released Wednesday.

The 2015 Pittsburgh Today & Tomorrow Report tells a drastically different narrative than data showed in the mid-1990s.

“It was to the point where I actually felt guilty putting out these reports because the news was so bad,” recalled Doug Heuck, director of Pittsburgh Today at Pitt's Center for Social and Urban Research. “There's really been a dramatic change in terms of the economic indicators.”

But the latest report shows residents in the seven-county region exhibit unhealthy behaviors that could hinder their quality of life.

They are more likely to smoke cigarettes, be overweight and choose not to exercise when compared to a group of 14 other American metro areas, the report found.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said the region lacks a “culture of health.” She said that social norms in an area — from bars that permit smoking to salads topped with french fries — can cause people to “conform” in unhealthy ways of living.

“But I do think the tide is turning,” Hacker said. “We have a younger generation moving in, and they have different demands and expectations,” including more bike paths and healthier dining options.

More people moved into Southwestern Pennsylvania than left for the fifth consecutive year in 2013, the report found, with patterns suggesting that as many as seven in 10 newcomers are young adults.

Pittsburgh Today defines Southwestern Pennsylvania as seven counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland. It compared the region to the metro areas of Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Richmond and St. Louis.

Among its findings:

• 22.4 percent of people living in the region are smokers, compared to 14.9 percent in Boston, 18 percent in Denver and 19 percent nationally.

• Nearly 75 percent seniors are overweight or obese.

• Nearly 25 percent of residents reported not doing any kind of physical activity in the past month. Only Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Detroit reported being less physically active.

These are issues that nearly every area nationwide grapples with to some degree, said Juliet Sims, program manager for the Prevention Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that studies community-based solutions to public health problems. California has had success reducing smoking rates through countywide tobacco control coalitions and mandated smoke-free parks and multi-family housing, she said.

“What's really important to recognize is it's not a single solution that achieves that norms change,” Sims said. “It's multiple solutions that are working together.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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