Health crisis - What will it take to break through?
6 May 2019
Opinion: A new book exposes how vested interests and political inertia have repeatedly cheated us of positive changes for prevention that could save and improve thousands of lives every year.
The road to the bold gun reform we’re now witnessing is littered with compelling evidence and expert advice that was ignored. A new book exposes how vested interests and political inertia have repeatedly cheated us of positive changes for prevention that could save and improve thousands of lives every year. What will it take to break through?
The usual political road to prevention looks like this: An independent report or government inquiry makes strong recommendations for policies and actions on a major issue like guns, alcohol, or obesity; vested interests lobby hard against the recommended prevention measures; politicians buckle under the pressure; minor, ineffectual changes are made; extensive damage from the problem continues; the cycle is repeated about every decade or so.
It took the slaughter of 50 people to give the politicians the steel to act in the public interest against those vested interests – or ‘Ardern-up’ as one Australian commentator coined it. Our politicians, and especially the Prime Minister, thoroughly deserve the huge praise they have received for their leadership in responding to this crisis.
What will it take for them to show similar leadership in public health? Tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods contribute about one third of the ill-health and premature death in New Zealand, yet we spend only 0.5 percent of the health budget on preventing harm from them. Hands up if you think this is a sensible proportion given the huge health gains and bang-for-buck that prevention offers?
If the 1000s of people who die prematurely and invisibly every year due to unhealthy diets, obesity, tobacco, and alcohol suddenly and visibly died on a single day that might shock us into demanding urgent action.
In his new book, "The Health of the People", top public health expert and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, Professor David Skegg, excoriates successive governments and health ministers, especially Jenny Shipley, for demolishing, neglecting and underfunding public health prevention.
Professor Skegg chaired the ill-fated crown entity, the Public Health Commission, when it was established in 1992. It very quickly became a major coherent force for prevention, yet was cut down after only three years by a deadly combination of inordinate industry power and a weak, short-sighted government.
The PHC made the apparent mistake of reviewing the international evidence on how best to reduce the enormous harm that New Zealanders were suffering from due to tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food. The lobby groups for those legal but harmful products were furious and pressured the then National government to pull the Commission down, which they obligingly did.
I was medical director of the Heart Foundation at the time and I remember how the PHC injected such great energy and evidence-based leadership into prevention in New Zealand during its brief existence and how devastated the whole health community was when Shipley pulled its plug.
Over the subsequent decades, the public health infrastructure and capacity for prevention has been almost continuously eroded and the policy actions to reduce obesity and control alcohol and tobacco have been like the gun control story – some minor gains, especially for tobacco, but very few substantive policies implemented from all the various reports and inquiries.
No government has had the steel to introduce a sugary drinks tax, ban junk food marketing to children, put the drinking age back to 20, or reduce the number of outlets selling cigarettes. Even something as basic as ensuring healthy food in schools and early childhood education centres was deliberately sent backwards under Tony Ryall’s watch as health minister.
While there were high expectations for this Government to be strong on prevention, it has put virtually nothing on the table apart from the welcome regulatory moves by Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa on smokefree cars and vaping.
If the thousands of people who die prematurely and invisibly every year due to unhealthy diets, obesity, tobacco, and alcohol suddenly and visibly died on a single day that might shock us into demanding urgent action. The serious prevention tools of laws, regulations, taxes, and funding might be used for this health crisis, just as they are currently being used for the gun crisis.
The Health Coalition Aotearoa is an alliance of health NGOs and researchers which is calling for stronger action on prevention. It has plenty of effective policies and actions sitting in the wings waiting for the one missing ingredient that Skegg identifies in his book: the political will to implement them.
If the Ardern-up approach to leadership of showing compassion for people suffering from preventable illnesses and early death, and the political resolve not to buckle to vested interests can be applied to tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods, that really will create the health of the people.
Professor Boyd Swinburn is from the School of Population Health in the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. He is also chair of Health Coalition Aotearoa. This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from the New Zealand Herald, Boyd Swinburn: Health crisis - what will it take to break through?, published on Friday 3 May, 2019.