The need for a public health movement in England

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A little of this stuff is great. Too much damages your health!

On Wednesday it was a real privilege to be at, never mind chair, the annual public health conference for England. The meeting was composed of Directors of Public Health, Doctors, professors, Health Victors, civil servants councillors, volunteers – in fact a huge range of people involved in public health.
Put simply ‘Public Health’ is about keeping people safe and healthy and stopping them from becoming ill. This has always been important nowhere more so than in Liverpool, where we had the world’s first ever Medical Officer of Health. Dr Duncan, because of the needless deaths from cholera. Millions of lives a year are saved and millions more people given good lives because of the work of public health professionals. Many illnesses have been all but eradicated. Polio, TB and many more are almost relics of the past in wealthy countries and increasingly becoming so in poorer countries.
So is the battle against illness and disease over? Of course not. Different decades present different challenges. Take tobacco. Smoking today is a fraction of what it was in Europe and America. Yet in developing countries increased affluence is leading to increased smoking leading to increased deaths.
The tsunamis of illness facing us in England (and probably in the other parts of the UK as well) are almost entirely manmade and therefore preventable. Speaker after speaker drew attention to the huge problem of obesity especially in children. 10% of under 5s are obese. This becomes about 30% of 11 year olds. They will be ill for life suffering from a range of maladies because many of their conditions will have been built into their body by that age. Poor circulation, heart, liver and kidney problems with a reduced bone structure means that on average the current generation of teenagers will die younger than my generation of 60 year olds.
The five horsemen of the health apocalypse are sugar, salt, drugs, alcohol and poverty. Some of these problems need legislation, others need cultural changes.
Take obesity. I believe that it needs legislation to:
1. Reduce the amount of sugar and salt in foods; and
2. Make labelling much clearer about what is in prepared food
3. Introduce a water shed in the media for certain types of food and drink
But that only deals with part of the problem
4. What about parents who don’t care about what they and their children eat?
5. What about people who are too poor to buy decent food?
6. What about people who can afford to buy decent food but don’t know how to prepare it?

Between all those 6 areas there is a solution. A solution that will enable children to grow up healthily and keep them out of health problems which are costly to deal with. But the impact on life viability and life pleasure is so much more important than the money.
But most of these people who read this blog will say that is so obvious why is it not happening? Well the easy answer is “vested interests and ignorance”. Many people do not know what is in their food and many more don’t care. They think that there will always be a pill to save them. But it’s the vested interests that predominate. Just as the tobacco industry fought for years to pretend that tobacco didn’t cause harm so the manufacturers of ‘pop’ prepared foods, processed meats and the like. Indeed I was trolled on Wednesday by a number of people who took the libertarian view that people should be allowed to do what they want. Amusingly I looked one up and found that their full time job as doing PR for a tobacco company.
There are too many £s and $s to be made out of unhealthy food for the big companies to roll over just because of the harm that their product can cause. Please note the can! I am not a killjoy. If you want to consume unhealthy food and drink from time to time and know what you are doing that’s fine. When I was a boy we had a bottle of pop every Sunday with our lunch. It’s when kids have a bottle or can of pop every day that the cumulative effect comes in. Healthy food is as good and as pleasurable as bad food. I don’t want us to be a nation of finger wagers telling people off for eating and drinking the wrong stuff. I want us to be a nation which supports our citizens into a better way of eating and drinking by example.
And that is why we need a movement to deal with two front problem.
Both to get legislation in place and change the culture of food and drink we need to have an army of people working together to promote healthy and enjoyable alternatives. That’s why we need to put the Professors, Doctors and other professionals into the same army as the Councillors and health charities. I want Public Health England to pull together all the agencies and organisations so that the picture becomes clear nationally and no one has to make ill informed choices about eating and drinking because legislation has failed them or ignorance clouds their judgement. I want the Professors and Doctors to provide the evidence that we can then take into Parliament and into our communities.
On Wednesday a leading civil servant Duncan Selbie, the director of Public Health England called for a revolution in the way we do things. Who am I, a mere Lib Dem politician, to disagree with him!!

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. UK representative on UCLG Finance Committee, Executive Bureau and World Council. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperon on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and three grandchildren.
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