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De Jong emphasizes personal responsibility for health

British Columbia can't afford to spend more money on health care, according to the provincial health minister, so the government is shifting the responsibility for healthy living to constituents.

At the Education, Health and Social Development Panel during the Union of BC Municipalities conference yesterday, Minister Mike de Jong told a room of municipal councillors that the province has increased health spending to 45 per cent of the total government budget this year, up from 32 per cent in 1990.

But despite increasing costs from an aging population and a growing obesity epidemic, De Jong says the province can't afford to spend any more money on health, and is therefore focusing on prevention.

"People have to take greater responsibility for their own health," he told the crowd, adding that new programs like free anti-smoking aids for Medical Service Plan subscribers removes the financial barrier from becoming healthier. If they could drop the provincial smoking rate just two percentage points to 13 per cent, De Jong claimed the government could save billions.

He also solicited advice from the crowd: "We could raise MSP premiums for people who smoke. Is that a good idea?" A quiet "no," and "yes," were heard in response.

One councillor brought up the higher number of obese and overweight people in the province as compared to smokers -- 44.7 per cent of British Columbians identify as overweight or obese -- asking why the government didn't focus that money on healthy eating and exercise instead.

"We are spending some of your money on an exercise campaign. We are spending some of your money on encouraging a healthier diet," De Jong responded. As evidence he cited the government's BC Healthy Communities program, the $3 million his ministry has put into the BC School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program.

When asked by The Tyee how the government intended to assist low-income earners and people on welfare with taking responsibility for their own health, De Jong emphasized the social safety net already in place for families in need.

"I won't pretend that the health budget affords the opportunity to be purchasing groceries for families. There is a social safety network in place through the ministry of child and family services," he says.

"We have provided funding that will allow people to go to dieticians and doctors, free of charge, and get specific information about better eating habits and how to provide a healthier diet for their families, and have allocated real dollars to do that, as part of the healthy families initiative."

Concerning low-income individuals, De Jong added "single people are families, too. They are small families, but they are families."

Katie Hyslop reports for The Tyee.

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