Public health aspirations undermined by wider coalition policies

Should a stark example of the impact of inequality be needed, look at health status and life expectancy. If everyone over 30 without a degree had their death rate reduced to that of people with degrees, there would be over 200,000 fewer premature deaths each year. This finding, in last year’s Marmot review of health inequalities, illustrated the report’s core message: “Inequalities are a matter of life and death, of health and sickness, of well-being and misery.”

Should a stark example of the impact of inequality be needed, look at health status and life expectancy. If everyone over 30 without a degree had their death rate reduced to that of people with degrees, there would be more than 200,000 fewer premature deaths each year. This finding, in last year’s Marmot review of health inequalities, illustrated the report’s core message:

“Inequalities are a matter of life and death, of health and sickness, of well-being and misery.”

So a new white paper on health is significant, against a background of a seven year difference in average life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent regions – an inequality greater than at any point since the 1920s.

The white paper, Healthy Lives, Health People, contains familiar themes for the coalition: reduce the role of government, devolve responsibility to localities, and publish data on outcomes as part of local accountability:

“… it is simply not possible to promote healthier lifestyles through Whitehall diktat and nannying about the way people should live.”

Commentators have been quick to note, however:

“… public health measures [that] have made undeniable and significant impacts include: seatbelt laws, drink-driving laws, the smoking ban.”

Health Lives, Healthy People has the Andrew Lansley hallmarks of a bold vision but is thin on detail. That detail will be strongly influenced by the food and drink industry, as documented in a Guardian investigation last month.

This highlighted that representatives of the major food and drink companies had been working with Lansley on his approach to public health policy since 2009, and are now integral to his policy machinery at the Department of Health, drafting policy recommendations for civil servants, in reversal of normal government process.

As a result, the white paper emphasis is on voluntary agreements, building on “nudge” theory; called the

“Public Health Responsibility Deal… [it] will aim to base these approaches on voluntary agreements with business and other partners, rather than resorting to regulation or top-down lectures.”

Public health experts remain concerned. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, of the British Medical Association, commented:

“If people live in an environment where they are surrounded by fast-food advertising and glamorous alcohol marketing, nudging will have a limited effect.”

The white paper proposes that responsibility for public health is transferred to local authorities in April 2013. Public health outcomes are to be measured and published alongside NHS and social care outcomes. Sceptics may wonder how improving outvomes will be encouraged, and there is reference to a health premium to incentivise improvement, but no further details.

The reality is that improving public health requires a concerted effort across agencies, as Marmot describes:

“Taking action to reduce inequalities in health does not require a separate health agenda, but action across the whole of society.”

The white paper does, though, acknowledge this:

“Healthcare services have been estimated to contribute only a third of the improvements we could make in life expectancy – changing people’s lifestyles and removing health inequalities contribute the remaining two thirds. Many of the biggest future threats to health, such as diabetes and obesity, are related to public health.”

This is where joined up government – local and national, with support of civil society – is put to the test, and in the coalition’s case the inconsistencies are already evident; for example, the white paper proposes that council areas with the highest levels of obesity, alcoholism and other symptoms of poor and excessive diet will get the most money from a ring-fenced budget to pursue their public health goals.

Yet this is against a background of major cuts in benefits and in local authority spending falling disproportionately on poorer areas with the greatest health need. Local government minister Bob O’ Neill has admitted that:

“Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt.”

Another topical example is the white paper’s referral to vouchers for healthy living and walk-to-school incentives, whilst the coalition proposes to scrap the successful and established School Sports Partnerships initiative.

Meanwhile, expert opinion remains sceptical about the white paper’s approach. Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the alcohol committee of the Royal College of Physicians, called the government’s measures “window-dressing”, adding that it “looks less like the ‘big society’ and more like big business”.

While Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, concluded:

“The term nudge is in fashion, but no substitute for public policy. There is a danger that the nudge will become a fudge.”

14 Responses to “Public health aspirations undermined by wider coalition policies”

  1. Health Blogger

    #healthnews Public health aspirations undermined by wider Coalition policies … http://tinyurl.com/38oaasx

  2. Health Care

    Public health aspirations undermined by wider Coalition policies …: In the wake of Andrew Lansley's white pape… http://bit.ly/gy6aZB

  3. Jenkins

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  4. Anthoni Boudain

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  5. Uncle Herba

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  6. Eva Mahar

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nudge or fudge? Public health aspirations undermined by wider Coalition policies: http://bit.ly/fTm2CL

  7. kate wilson

    Public health aspirations undermined by wider coalition policies: Health Lives, Healthy People has the Andrew La… http://bit.ly/edHCWy

  8. Free Home Health .Info » Blog Archive » Public health aspirations undermined by wider Coalition policies …

    […] the original post: Public health aspirations undermined by wider Coalition policies … Tags: the-wake, trevor, trevor-cheeseman, wake, white-paper, wider-coalition No […]

  9. Mr. Sensible

    Trevor this is another example where the Coalition’s decentralization agenda falls flat.

    They want to reduce inequalities between areas, but by giving more responsibilities to local authorities won’t the opposit happen? I remember Bob Neil’s gem well.

    I think there are some good things in there, such as proposals to stop drink being sold below cost price.

    But as you mention, how are cuts to the school sports partnerships going to make children fitter?

    This white paper is just full of contradictions.

  10. Siobhan Farmer

    RT @leftfootfwd Nudge or fudge? #Publichealth aspir. undermined by wider Coalition policies: http://bit.ly/fTm2CL <great discussion points

  11. Spir.Sotiropoulou

    RT @leftfootfwd: Public health aspirations undermined by wider coalition policies http://bit.ly/hxobIM

  12. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – You and I have been conversing on this fine blog pretty much since it started and in all that time you’ve never directly answered the one point I keep coming back to:

    Why do you not believe in local people and put your faith in flawed government where the people we elect from all parties stole our money and trust in the expenses scandal?

    Why no faith in ordinary decent people – do you think they are too stupid and couldn’t live without state control of their lives?

  13. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse, the point is the 2 aims that Lansley sets out; decentralization and cutting health inequalities do not, in my view, sit well alongside each other.

  14. A nudge can help saving, but only if there's room in the budget to start | Left Foot Forward

    […] Public health aspirations undermined by wider coalition policies – Trevor Cheeseman, December 1st […]

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