People living in Pasco and Hernando counties are more likely to die prematurely than residents of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, according to a new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
For each county, the study looked at the number of early deaths — those occurring before age 75 — and calculated the share that could have been avoided had the residents lived in healthier communities.
In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the figure was 14 percent.
In Pasco and Hernando, it was 19 percent.
Those four counties exceeded the 11 percent average for all Florida counties, and the Tampa Bay region, in general, measured less healthy than the state's other major urban centers.
The 2015 Florida Health Gaps Report sought to illustrate how health outcomes can vary based on where a person lives. The authors pointed out that access to safe and affordable housing, job-training programs and quality education are all factors that can affect health. Even long car commutes and the quality of leisure time have an impact, they said.
"We know that every state has communities where people lack opportunities to be as healthy as they might be," said Donald Schwarz, a director for the foundation. "And we know that often it's policy and will that makes the difference."
Statewide, the report found that nearly 8,000 deaths could be avoided if all Floridians had the same opportunities as those living in the healthiest counties. The authors also said there would be 544,000 fewer smokers, 478,000 fewer obese adults and 799,000 fewer excessive drinkers.
The figures didn't surprise Donna Petersen, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. She said researchers have long known genetics are only partly responsible for health outcomes.
"If you are living in a house that leaks and has mold and cockroaches, that's not conducive to your health," she said. "If you are living in an environment where you don't feel safe going outside, you aren't going to go outside to take a walk and get some exercise. All of these things contribute to the health of a community and the people who live there."
Petersen said the data was likely to vary even more dramatically community to community.
"Your ZIP code may matter even more than your county," she said.
The study did not provide specific reasons why the excess death rates varied so greatly.
Pasco County Health Officer Mike Napier attributed the poor health outcomes in his county to high rates of smoking and obesity. He said his office had launched a tobacco-prevention program, and was working with local employers, educators and urban planners to fight the obesity epidemic.
"We work every day to convince people to improve their health," Napier said in a statement. "Changing behaviors is just one step away, one cigarette away or one healthy food choice."
Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Hernando, said health officials in her county were also "really interested in halting the backward slide and moving forward." She said community groups were working on ways to raise awareness about mental illness, ensure preschools teach children and families to be healthy, and improve the county's 211 system for connecting people with resources.
"We know that to attract young families and businesses to Hernando, we are going to have to be a healthier community," she said. "We have to turn the tables."
The report provided more than a dozen suggestions for improving health in Florida, including increasing support for federally qualified health centers, offering a child care subsidy, enhancing public transportation and raising the tax on cigarettes.
State health officials in Tallahassee said many of the policy areas highlighted in the report were already priorities, such as encouraging healthy eating and active lifestyles.
But Dr. Roderick King, CEO of the nonprofit Florida Institute for Health Innovation, said the study should serve as a broader call to action.
"It's meant to get folks to form coalitions and come together to find out why the data looks like it does in their county," he said. "The health department already knows all of this information. The report is meant to get the nontraditional partners involved."
The county with the longest way to go is tiny Union County in north-central Florida, according to the study. It said half of the early deaths there could have been avoided.
Nine counties were tagged as the state's top public health performers: Broward, Collier, Lee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, St. Johns, Sarasota and Seminole.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.