Public health has been a major issue for politicians and health professionals for a number of years. With the strain on NHS services ever increasing, new policies are being introduced to help the health of the nation. Whilst not a new idea, never before has the government had such an influence on the day-to-day life of the public.
Last week, reports emerged that the 2007 smoking ban, which made it illegal to smoke in public places, has seen a 40% reduction in the number of patients suffering heart attacks as a result of second-hand smoke. The policy has clearly had a very positive effect on overall public health, but can other similar policies have the same positive outcome, and can more still be done?
The Cochrane study, which examined 21 countries, including the UK, who have introduced bans in recent years, is where many of the reports have gathered their information. The study found strong evidence to suggest that the ban had been a contributing factor in the reduction of cardiac illnesses. A similar US study also found a 14% reduction in the number of strokes in countries where a ban had been introduced. Such statistics are known to be hard to prove; as such reductions can also be a result of many other contributing factors such as a fall in tobacco sales and other health improvements. This study, however, made sure to take account of other trends across the period and so fairly accurately represents improvements amongst non-smokers since the ban was introduced.
Government intervention, in this case, has greatly improved the lives of those who previously had little or no control over the amount of second-hand smoke they were inhaling. But can other similar policies have the same direct effects? The campaign to reduce salt consumption eventually resulted in a 20% reduction in the amount of salt contained in processed foods, but saw marked improvements even before this was implemented. The strong campaign, which aimed to raise awareness surrounding the risks of high salt consumption, was arguably more effective than the resulting government policy. Whilst overall salt consumption is now thought to have fallen by around 10%, there is no definitive way of knowing whether or not this is simply a result of greater awareness and better choices and no way of determining whether this would have remained has the campaign ended without a change in policy. Whilst salt reduction in processed foods was undoubtedly a necessary move, the role of the government in making these choices for the public remains firmly in debate.
Divided opinions surrounding this issue have continued to flourish in recent years as the newest campaign against sugar consumption comes to the forefront of media attention. Once again an influential campaign highlighting the effects of high sugar consumption has already seen positive results, with one study showing some families reducing their sugar intake by as much as 40%. But some feel the positive results of the campaign do not go far enough and want to see similar laws put in place as that with salt consumption to reduce the amount of sugar in processed food. Whilst many politicians are open to this idea, no definitive moves have been made towards this yet, although it certainly seems as though this may be a policy of the future.
Interestingly, both salt and sugar have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke, the very concerns to see improvements since the smoking ban. With such high improvements since 2007, it is easy to see why many believe more can be done to improve the nations health and alleviate the strain on the NHS. The reduction in salt intake and added salt in processed foods has indeed helped the smoking ban in improving the number of admissions to hospital for heart related diseases. The aim of a reduction in sugar consumption aims to improve this further by reducing obesity numbers, yet is this really the responsibility of the government? The media has done its job by raising awareness and arming the public with facts and evidence. The government would go a step further, making choices for us based on these facts in an attempt to remove strains on public services. There is no evidence to suggest that the smoking ban saw any improvement in the number of smokers choosing to quit, yet it has been proven to have a significant improvement on the lives of those who would otherwise suffer as a result of passive smoking, people who did not choose to smoke. The problem with the new proposals is simple, whilst they may improve the overall health of the nation they are effectively making the choice for us in a way they have never done, or had to do, before.
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