Tobacco, alcohol problems undercut U.S. children's health
When he's not flipping pizzas in Westport, Ronald Schrader spends his summer afternoons hopping curbs on his skateboard -- until he starts coughing.
The 18-year-old skater is a longtime smoker.
"I like to skateboard a lot," he said, "but it's hard for me to breathe now. I'll skate an hour and cough. At work, I sometimes gasp for breath. I wish I could quit."
The Kansas City teen's behavior fits a profile found in a federal report released Thursday. The report showed that although U.S. children generally are healthier than ever before, they also drink and smoke too much, and more than a quarter of high school seniors use drugs.
"In some areas, the health and well-being of American children is better than it ever has been," said Duane Alexander of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "There are some things that are not the way they should be, and even the indicators that are `best-ever' status have room for improvement."
The latest federal figures for the Kansas City area aren't available yet. But judging from last year's numbers, the situation might not be as good here as it is nationally, local children's advocates say.
According to the Partnership for Children's 1999/2000 Kansas City report card, Kansas City has worse ratings for low birth weights, infant mortality, child immunizations and alcohol and drug use by minors than the rest of the country, based on previous federal figures.
Kansas City did fare better than the national average in two categories: early prenatal care and the rate of teen births.
"We can be proud of that," said Donna Peck, a spokeswoman for the agency. "But there are several areas where Kansas City lags behind the rest of the country."
Peck said she had seen some statistics for next year's area report card, and immunization rates have risen. But problem areas -- especially drinking and smoking -- remain.
"We're not getting worse, but we're not getting better," she said.
Ron Woods, another local 18-year-old, said he wasn't alarmed by the national report's negative findings.
"If we're going to do it, we're going to do it," Woods said of his teen peers. And he admits that he sometimes drinks and smokes. "Old people did it when they were our age. They say it's getting worse, but I don't believe it."
The newest government figures were compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. The agency gathered the data from 20 federal agencies on the health, education, economic and education trends among America's 70.2 million children younger than 18. Most of the statistics are from 1999, 1998 and 1997.
Among the report's highlights:
The 1998 infant mortality rate -- meaning death before the first birthday -- is unchanged from the 1997 rate of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. Worldwide, the U.S. ranks 25th in infant mortality.
Mortality rates for older children and adolescents have improved in the past three years, meaning children are now more likely to reach adulthood.
The percentage of youngsters 19 months to 35 months old who have received vaccinations against disease is at an all-time high. For 1998, the rate was 79 percent, a 3 percentage point increase from the previous year.
The percentage of low birth weight babies (less than 5.5 pounds at birth) continues to go up, increasing from 7.5 percent of newborns in 1997 to 7.6 percent in 1998. One possible reason may be an increased use of fertility drugs and medically assisted conception.
The rate of teen-agers giving birth continues to drop, following a trend first noted in 1991. There were 32 births per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 17 in 1997, while the latest data, from 1998, puts the rate at 30.
The report was released as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Missouri Republican Kit Bond, introduced the Children's Health Act of 2000.
The bill authorizes new grants for research and education initiatives on children's health issues. It would cost about $1 billion annually to implement the measure.
The legislation calls for money to identify ways to prevent head injuries. Money also would be given to states to improve child health and safety in day-care settings.
Under the new legislation, the Centers for Disease Control also would receive funds to set up a department to collect and distribute data on birth defects.
The bill also calls for increased funding for studies and prevention programs that address autism, asthma, childhood obesity, lead poisoning and oral health problems.
Mike Drone, a spokesman for Bond, said the bill focused on areas not addressed at the national level.
"Fortunately, most kids are healthy," he said. "But the bad news is that some kids have problems, and that too many of these children tend to be very sick. This legislation tries to fill in these unfortunate gaps in health care."
The House already has passed a similar version of the bill.
The Star's Nora Coronado and The Associated Press contributed to this report.