Many Lincoln and Marathon county residents still drink too much alcohol, are too fat and smoke cigarettes more than they should, according to a report released this week.

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute's 2011 county health rankings underscores the cultural issues that local health officials are continually trying to combat in an effort to make central Wisconsin healthier.

Lincoln County fell from 39th in 2010 to 47th this year, while Marathon County held onto its spot as the 20th most healthy county of the 72 in Wisconsin. Ozaukee is the healthiest and Menominee is the least healthy county.

Officials in both Lincoln and Marathon counties said long-term issues such as obesity were known to still be a problem, but unemployment and a stagnant economy have put additional strain on each county's overall health.

"Economic (issues) trickle down to everything else, such as eating healthy," said Shelley Hersil, director of Lincoln County Health Department. In February, unemployment rates were 11.8 percent and 8.5 percent in Lincoln and Marathon county, respectively.

But the report, released annually, sheds light on nagging problems that central Wisconsin shares with much of the state and country.

The percentage of people who smoke, drink excessively and are fat, is above the national average in both Lincoln and Marathon counties.

Joan Theurer, health officer for Marathon County Health Department, said the deeply entrenched cultural issues such as unhealthy eating and drinking are complex, difficult problems to tackle, but over time, she expects to see an improvement.

She pointed to cigarettes use, which still is a problem but has declined in Wisconsin adults. According to one state report, cigarette use decreased from 25 percent in 1990 to 22.5 percent of the more than 5.5 million Wisconsin residents in 2009.

One of the most noticeable issues is binge drinking. Twenty-five percent of each county's population is guilty of excessive drinking, the report shows. That equates to about 33,000 people binge drinking at some point in Marathon County and 7,200 in Lincoln.

"In terms of excessive drinking, I think we're starting to take the initial steps (to address) what the impact of excessive drinking has not only in individuals and families, but the community as a whole," Theurer said.

One initiative to address alcohol abuse is BRAVO, formed in 2003 by Healthy Marathon County. BRAVO promotes legislation that targets responsible use of alcohol and also implemented the "social norms" campaign to change youths' perception of alcohol use. The group also educates adults about responsible drinking.

While officials would like funding for more programs, initiatives in both the public and private sector are in motion to address these problems.

For example, the Aspirus Health Foundation has used a $59,000 grant from Kohl's to create an online program designed to help children make healthier eating and lifestyle choices. The program helps children track their success along with their parents.

"It has to start with our children," said Kalynn Pempek, the foundation's executive director. "When they come home from school they try to hold their parents accountable for some of those things."

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