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Archive for the ‘Obesity’ Category

By Dr Nadeem Hasan

The importance of effective advocacy to achieving public health goals cannot be overstated.
Every day policies and regulations that affect health outcomes for better or worse are put on the agenda and kept off the agenda; discussed and debated; approved and rejected.

Many, if not most of these relate primarily to non-health sectors, such as food and beverages, energy and infrastructure, and alcohol and tobacco. But their impact on health outcomes is very real: all the stop-smoking programmes in the world can’t match the impact of the ban on advertising and smoking in public places on smoking prevalence; and there’s no amount of spending on childhood obesity programmes that can make up for the regulatory vacuum in this area.

Looking more broadly, policy decisions that affect income inequality, carbon emissions, and military action all have serious consequences for health across the world.

If we’re serious about prevention, we need to be serious about advocacy.
Where profits can be affected (almost everywhere), industry lobbyists seek to influence the regulatory environment in their favour. And they are very good at it. In principle, this is quite right – those affected by policy and regulatory shifts should indeed be able to make representations and provide additional evidence to support the decision-making process – and this includes relevant industry actors.
Representing the interests of everybody else is where advocacy organisations come in – acting as sort of ‘civil society lobbyists’ to balance out the discussion – advocating on behalf of the health, wellbeing, and broader concerns of the general population. Notably, this isn’t always an ‘us vs. them’ relationship: health insurance companies are routinely allies on advocating for lower drug prices; and renewable energy companies are more than happy to work with advocacy organisations on climate change regulation.

Put this way, it might sound like a fair playing field, with decision-makers receiving submissions from a range of groups and making balanced decisions to maximise the benefits to all parties. The reality of course is quite different, and much, much messier.
In 2014, there were an estimated 30,000 industry lobbyists in Brussels alone, falling just short of the 31,000 employees for the whole European Commission.

Civil society pockets are not deep enough to come close to matching this (or the salaries of lobbyists), and civil society advocacy and pressure groups are few and far between. Transparency falls short of the ideal, and the revolving door between policy-making and industry remains alive and well. Most recently the former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso was appointed Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a move that has been widely criticised.
Advocacy organisations, then, have a difficult task – but one where even small successes can have far-reaching benefits for public health.
The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), based in Brussels, is one such advocacy organisation. They bring together a range of health-related NGOs to advocate for better public health in Europe, working across five campaign areas: antimicrobial resistance; food, drink and agriculture; healthy economic policy; universal access and affordable medicines; and trade for health (and specifically the EU-US free trade agreement – TTIP – and the EU-Canada free trade agreement – CETA). Earlier this year, they hosted myself and another registrar in a pilot placement to understand health advocacy at the European level and to develop skills in this area.
So how to sum up the placement?
Invaluable. EPHA track the policy process for each one of their campaign areas and engage at every possible point. They attend every meeting at the European Parliament and the European Commission on these areas and make oral contributions at every opportunity; they submit comprehensive written responses to every relevant consultation; they engage on a daily basis with journalists to publicise their positions and build public support; they engage like-minded actors in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors on a case-by-case basis to coordinate action; and they do all of this with just a handful of relatively young staff and interns.

They were very welcoming in bringing us into the whole process, allowing me to engage in every one of these steps – from writing position papers and consultation responses to making oral contributions at the European Commission and Parliament on their behalf.
Notably, EPHA also position themselves as an advocacy agency that actors from across the spectrum can engage with – in contrast to, for example, much more vocal organisations such as Greenpeace.

By way of example, the area that I was working on was TTIP. Whilst there are a raft of advocacy organisations across Europe (and the USA) that reject TTIP outright, EPHA’s

approach is to work through the whole agreement and advocate for the protection of public health on a section-by-section basis without rejecting the whole deal. With the European Commission politically committed to getting a deal, this makes EPHA one of the few organisations they can meaningfully engage with on this issue (though recent developments have called into question the likelihood of getting a deal in the near future).

This isn’t to say that their approach is ‘superior’ – every actor plays a particular role, with the more intransigent organisations key in shifting public opinion and providing the space for actors such as EPHA to engage in more balanced discussions. This means that they are invited to closed-door sessions with only a handful of actors, and have much more influence on the process than they otherwise would.
One of the challenges from a ‘public health professional’ perspective was that effective advocacy sometimes involves taking – shall we say – a less balanced view than we would normally as technical experts. From an ethical perspective, this raises a number of questions around whether the ends justify the means. I witnessed first-hand industry lobbyists making quite outrageous claims, including a rather undignified moment where I coughed up half my glass of water in a large auditorium at the European Commission when it was submitted that ‘alcohol is in no way an unhealthy commodity’ .

In a world where climate change denial is alive and well despite the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the ‘best’ approach to making our points is perhaps not so easy to discern.
And what of the relevance to the UK, particularly as we now start closing our doors to the EU in a bid to be a more open, global-facing country?
Whether or not the UK is a member, the EU remains a powerful actor that can influence policies related to public health both for its own citizens (which will still number ~450m after the UK leaves), and globally. As a close neighbour, EU regulations will have a strong bearing on public health in the UK too, and so engaging in advocacy at this level will continue to be an effective approach to improving UK public health.

This is true for everything from environmental regulations and air pollution, to pharmaceutical regulations and drug pricing and safety.
Within the UK, whilst it’s true that our policy-making process is not as amenable to advocacy as at the EU level (or remotely as civilised), effective advocacy still has huge potential to improve public health. We have not done well recently, with a watered-down childhood obesity strategy, no resistance to an unfunded ‘7-day’ NHS (that differs from the 7-day NHS that has existed since 1948 in some undefined way), and year-on-year increases in the use of food banks without any policy response (to name just three areas).

At the local level, there are a cornucopia of opportunities for advocacy to improve health, from influencing urban planning (fast food outlets close to schools, street design, cycling lanes) to advocacy around shifting public perceptions e.g. from opposing to welcoming refugees into local communities.
In this context, strengthening the advocacy skills of the UK public health workforce through engaging with and learning from experienced actors such as EPHA should be pursued with vigour – we can ill afford the alternative.

Dr Nadeem Hasan is a Specialty Registrar in Public Health

 

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  • Amy Smullen
  • Policy Officer
  • British Heart Foundation

The nation’s oversized waistline is putting our hearts under increasing strain.

We know that obesity puts people at a greater risk of coronary heart disease and having their lives shortened by a heart attack or stroke. But this isn’t just a problem of the here and now. It’s one that’s already waiting in the wings to devastate future generations as well.

junkfood_image

Watershed? why we need to ban some food adverts before 9pm

Around 30% of children in the UK are now classed as either overweight or obese. (1) Dietary surveys show that children are also eating too much saturated fat, salt and sugar. (2) Together, these factors put too many children at risk of carrying their excess weight and poor eating habits into adulthood, putting their hearts at risk.

That is why the British Heart Foundation (BHF), alongside many other organisations, such as the Faculty of Public Health want to see advertisements for food and drink that is high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) banned before the 9pm watershed.

The BHF are acutely aware that obesity is a complex problem that requires action on lots of fronts. We don’t pretend banning junk food adverts is a magic bullet. But the sad reality is that our children are being bombarded with clever marketing encouraging them to eat products that have little nutritional value whether it’s walking to school, surfing the internet or watching TV at home. Banning these adverts before 9pm and tightening online regulation has to be part of the solution.

So why have we focused in on junk food adverts?

Firstly; because children aren’t like us adults. They cannot distinguish between what is harmless entertainment and what is persuasive advertising (3) and are they are therefore classed as a vulnerable group when it comes to advertising. Industry regulator Ofcom (4) states that ‘media literacy develops with age and … it isn’t until after 11 or 12 years of age that children can articulate a critical understanding of advertising.’

Second, research shows that food promotion, such as TV ads, can influence children’s food preferences and consumption. (5) Adverts also encourage general consumption, meaning that an advert for a specific chocolate bar won’t make you more likely to buy just that specific brand but any chocolate bar in general. (6)

And thirdly, on average our children are spending 27 hours either online or watching TV every week. That averages out at just under 4 hours per day. And it’s not just a few children skewing the average. Over 80% of children aged 5-15 watch the TV almost every day (7).

In 2007, the Government acknowledged that HFSS advertising was a problem, and banned any HFSS adverts during children’s programming. (8) But, while reducing the number they saw, this hasn’t stopped children seeing them.

That’s because adverts which are banned during children’s shows can be shown during family programming. Shows such as The Simpsons, X-Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent are technically classed as ‘family programmes’ despite high child audience levels. (The last two programmes made it into the top 20 programmes most watched by children in 2013.) (9) As such, marketeers are allowed to advertise any product they want. An audit by the University of Liverpool in 2013 showed that  almost one in four TV adverts shown between 8-9pm, when children’s viewing peaks, were for food products. (10)

Online, it’s even worse. It’s no secret that our children are online more than ever. Worryingly many of the techniques used to promote food and drinks online blur the lines between persuasion and entertainment, making it difficult for children to identify online marketing. (11)

Take, for example, advergames. These are online games that have a brand or marketing message integrated into them. Where a TV advert may only last for 30 seconds, research has shown that children spend longer engaging with the product message and engage with the brand at a deeper subconscious level. (12)

Adding to this the Committee of Advertising Practice Code, which governs marketing on advertisers own websites and their social media channels, doesn’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food.

The code states that “marketing communications should not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children’ – but what constitutes ‘condoning and encouraging’ or ‘poor habits’ is not defined.

But isn’t it all down to the parents? Shouldn’t they be policing their children more?

While we agree that parents are responsible for helping children eat a healthy balanced diet, these adverts undermine their efforts to do that. When we asked parents for their views, 70% of them told us that they had been pestered to buy HFSS products that their children had seen advertised on TV and 39% of parents said that these adverts were making it difficult for them to help their children eat a healthy diet. (13)

Over 30,000 people have already signed our petition, which calls on the Government to ban HFSS adverts before the 9pm watershed. Alongside the BHF and Faculty of Public Health the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Children’s Food Campaign, UK Health Forum, The Heart of Mersey, the British Dental Association, Family and Childcare Trust, the Association for the study of Obesity and the University of Liverpool also call for a 9pm watershed ban.

The demand for action is getting stronger and louder.

Help us stop these adverts by signing our petition to send a clear message to the Government that they must stop our children from being bombarded with HFSS adverts to protect their health.

1) British Heart Foundation (2013) ‘Children and Young People Statistics’ http://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/view-publication.aspx?ps=1002326
2) Department of Health (2014) ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Headline Results from Years 1, 2 and 3 (combined) of the Rolling Programme 2008/09 – 2011/12.
3)  E.g. Young B (2003) ‘Does food advertising influence children’s food choices?’ International journal of Advertising 22: 441-459. Hastings et al (2003) ‘Review of the research on the effects of food promotion to children.’ Food Standards Agency
4)  Livingstone S (2004) Childhood Obesity – Food Advertising in Context.
5)  Ofcom (March 2006) ‘Television Advertising of Food and Drink products to Children: Options for new restrictions: A consultation’ (para 1.8).
6) Hastings et al (2003) ‘Review of the research on the effects of food promotion to children.’ Food Standards Agency.
7)  Ofcom (2014)
8) Ofcom (2007) ‘Television advertising of food and drink products to children – final statement.’
9) Ofcom (2014)
10) Boyland, E and Whalen E (2014) ‘Analysis of food adverts shown during a sample of primetime television.’
11)  A.Nairn (2009) ‘Changing the rules of the game: implicit persuasion and interactive children’s marketing.’ Berkley Media Studies Group
12) Nairn, A. (2012) ‘Advergames: It’s not child’s play.
13)  British Heart Foundation (2015) survey.

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by Dr Geraint Lewis

For the past eight years, I have had the sometimes-dubious pleasure of living in London’s King’s Cross neighbourhood.  Being so close to the centre of the city, I do my best to cycle as often as I can around town. However, my repertoire of safe cycle routes is rather limited, and I dread straying too far away from my familiar routes and ending up somewhere where I have to battle my way home through the frenzied London traffic. The result is that I cycle less often, and less far than I would like to.

To be fair, these days there is a wealth of websites and apps that could help me navigate safely around London by bike.  The trouble, though, is that the safe bike routes themselves are just too complicated.

Take an example. Let’s say I wanted to cycle from my home in King’s Cross to St. Thomas’s hospital near Waterloo.  Although I know the walking route I would take to get there, I have no idea how reach the hospital safely by bike.  Go to the Transport for London  (TfL) website and it suggests a route that involves no fewer than 57 stages—as compared with two stages for the same journey by tube (Piccadilly line to Leicester Square, then the Northern line to Waterloo).

Indeed, London’s cycle network is so complicated that TfL appears incapable of displaying it as a complete map on its website.  Instead cyclists must order 14 paper maps to cover the whole city, plus a separate PDF for each of the new cycle superhighways that are currently being built.  Even where individuals have gallantly tried to produce simplified bike maps of London, the end result still bears too much resemblance to a plate of spaghetti.

Other cities have had a go at creating much simpler cycle maps aimed at encouraging more people to cycle. In Edinburgh, for example, Mark Sydenham and Martin Baillie have developed a tube map for bikes.  But the reality is that Londoners, like the citizens of many large cities, actually use the public transport network as their “mental map” for getting around their city.

The idea that Tim Miller and I suggested is that planners should build a bike network that recreates this mental map we are all so familiar with.  London’s bike network would directly resemble the tube map; Newcastle’s would follow the metro map, and so on.  In the jargon, what we are calling for are cycle networks that are “homeomorphic” or “topologically equivalent” to their public transport network. So in London, the cycle network we would like to see built would join up every tube station using analogous bike lanes to the tube lines – sharing the same names, colour codes and destinations as the tube lines.

So in this new world, my journey from King’s Cross to St. Thomas’s would simply involve taking the “Piccadilly bike lane” to Leicester Square, and turning left to go down the “Northern bike lane” to Waterloo.

What would be the costs and benefits of this proposal? Clearly, to build a network of safe cycle routes would take a large, sustained investment.  It would require building tens of kilometres of off-road bike lanes and closing off a considerable number of streets to through vehicular traffic.

However, the London tube map is a fixed asset that will be with us for generations to come, so this expenditure should be viewed as a very long-term investment. Just as with the tube network’s 150 year history, we would need to start small and build up the cycle network slowly, bike lane by bike lane and tube stop by tube stop.

From a public health perspective, I suspect the benefits of this proposed scheme would be at least fivefold.  First, it would encourage more people, including visitors to the city, to make longer journeys across town because they would now have more confidence that they could get to where they were going and be able to find their way back in one piece.  Second, it could reduce fatalities if more cyclists used off-road cycle lanes and quiet roads that had been closed to through vehicular traffic.

Third, it would reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Fourth, it would encourage cross-modal journeys because the cycle network and the rail network would now be inextricably linked. But finally, and rather sneakily, we might be able to increase journey distances from point A to point B by designing cycle routes between tube stations that were slightly more circuitous than were strictly necessary.

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Dr John Middleton, Director of Public Health for Sandwell and FPH Vice President, email vpPolicy@fph.org.uk

On first reading, the health bill seems silent on public health roles in the health service. More than 300 public health specialists and consultants who work in health service public health are justifiably nervous about what the future public health system holds for them. In a set of reforms establishing Public Health England and local-authority-based public health directors, they could have expected some acknowledgement. There is what we expected about the other two domains of public health: health protection and health improvement.

Fortunately the subtext of the bill holds much more hope for public health in health services. It confers duties of engagement, partnership, quality and reducing inequalities on the NHS Commissioning Board and GP commissioners.  Even Monitor needs public health – if it is to create national tariffs that genuinely reflect the most effective interventions delivered most efficiently rather than reward incompetence, gaming and worsening of inequalities in health services.

Health-services-related public health is arguably the most technically exacting facet of public health and certainly the most contentious. It requires rigorous knowledge of healthcare interventions and epidemiological and interpretative skills are needed to show what works and what does harm. As the margins of benefit from new drugs and treatments get smaller, careful analysis becomes ever more necessary. Assessing complex healthcare data is crucial activity – truly a matter of life and death – not an exercise of faceless bureaucracy or unnecessary management cost.  Some patients will die when we do decide to fund their high cost – and high risk – drug.

These funding decisions cannot be left to the newly emasculated NICE – implementation is local. The best national policies flounder if they are not locally understood and implemented.

Health services public health is not always popular – rationing decisions invariably get unravelled in appeals, press examination, in legal dispute and judicial review. There may be political expectation that big healthcare private organisations will bring the skills to evaluate healthcare for GP commissioners in the future. This has hardly been borne out by the   hospital deaths misinformation, or the quasi-scientific risk-stratification products on offer.

The return of public health to local authorities holds the welcome recognition of where the major influences on health still are.  Many of us cite McKeown’s decline of mortality since 1840 due to clean water, sanitation, better housing and working conditions, better nutrition and smaller family size. The big environmental challenges, work with social care on reablement and personalisation, and the need to reduce health inequalities are live issues for public health in local authorities. Twenty-first century diseases such as obesity, relationship and behavioural problems and addictions also lend themselves to big public health responses from a local-authority base.  But equally relevant in the 21st century is the health service contribution to life expectancy gain – Bunker, Frasier and Mostellar’s Millbank review concluded that about 30% of the life-expectancy improvement since the NHS came along was due to healthcare factors. The capacity for health services to do harm as well as good is immense, and the need to get better value for money in healthcare is ever more relevant.

There is growing recognition of the need for health promotion or ‘lifestyle’ interventions in healthcare. Acute services are seeing it as part of QUIPP and many are instigating ‘stop before the op’ smoking cessation programmes. GPs also increasingly have opportunities to refer to food and fitness services, psychological therapies and addiction-brief interventions. It is easy to see how GP commissioning should be involved in commissioning alcohol services – jointly with the local authority DsPH – to cover all preventive and therapeutic interventions. Less easy, but just as relevant in reducing hospital dependency, would be joint commissions on fit-for-work programmes, welfare rights and housing improvement.

With hospitals being more dangerous places than roads these days, health systems need public health skills more than ever. More than 30 consultants and specialists in public health work in acute hospital trusts. Hospitals, and health centres, are outlets for health information, signposts and venues for health promoting activity and potential exemplars of health improvement for staff, patients and visitors. Business choices for hospital and community trusts should be informed by good health-needs analysis, assessment of best evidence of effectiveness and evaluation. Care pathways should all include ‘lifestyle’ programmes as a key choice in the pathway– for example, before bariatric or vascular surgery.  This is equally relevant in GP commissioning. For the first time we are beginning to have good data about morbidity and about quality of care in general practice. These data have to inform the joint strategic needs assessments. But they also have to be interpreted and used in primary care.

Public health specialists need to be embedded in organisations because that is the only way their advice will be taken on – consultancies we all take or leave. There should be consultant level public health expertise in all arms of the new health system – including the NHS Commissioning Board and Monitor. But we need also a coherent base on which all the public health training and development is founded – only Public Health England appears capable of that. There are encouraging signs that GPs and others in the new NHS are recognising the need for healthcare public health – you won’t find it in the health bill.

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By Alan Maryon-Davis

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants to encourage people to eat healthily, drink sensibly, stop smoking and get more active without lecturing or hectoring them. People don’t like being told what to do or not do – least of all by the Government – so Lansley says we should provide them with information and incentives and let them choose for themselves – nudging rather than nannying. Hence the Great Change4Life Swapathon with its supermarket discount vouchers for healthy options. Lots of carrots, no sticks.

There’s also much nudging behind Lansley’s Responsibility Deal with the food, drink and fitness industries. Double nudging – Lansley nudging them to nudge the public. Industry will “pledge” to provide information and incentives encouraging healthier choices.

So where’s the fudge? In return for industry cooperation (and cash) Lansley has said he’ll go easy on mandatory regulations around such things as marketing, labelling, availability and pricing. To be fair, he doesn’t rule these threats out completely. He talks about the Nuffield Ladder of Interventions, with the least intrusive (information, education and incentives) at the bottom and the most intrusive (regulation and legislation) at the top. But he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to climb that ladder unless he absolutely has to. It wouldn’t fit his political philosophy.

So there’s a big fudge around how he’ll monitor adherence to voluntary approaches, assess progress and judge when to bring in mandatory controls. The food and drink industries are notoriously slippery, evasive and foot-dragging – just look at labelling and marketing. Meanwhile the health lobby is going along with the Responsibility Deal in the hope that things might be different this time – well aware they risk being be-smudged as part of the fudge.

I’d like to see a solid pledge by the Government to regulate or legislate if voluntary approaches fail and to be crystal clear about how and when such judgements will be made. Without an explicit commitment to use force if necessary, the deal will be seen as no more than a charade letting Big Business off the hook.

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Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson talks to FPH’s Suvi Kingsley about the Olympic bid and legacy, and her top tips for parents struggling to get their kids moving.

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Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson gives the second keynote speech at the Faculty of Public Health Conference on Wednesday 7 July.

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