Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Translating local action to national policy

Guest post by Robin Ireland, Chief Executive, Health Equalities Group and Director, Food Active

North West England (NWE) has some of the worst health statistics in the country calling for transformative and challenging approaches by its local public health community. Merseyside-based social enterprise, the Health Equalities Group (HEG) including heart health charity Heart of Mersey has worked with and supported NWE’s Directors of Public Health since 2003.

Obesity and maintaining a healthy weight present huge problems both now and in the future. Balancing the need for a population-based prevention approach whilst government policy focuses on targeting individuals with expensive weight management programmes is particularly difficult. At the same time individual stigmatisation is both unhelpful and particularly damaging. Somehow we have to work towards changing cultures so that junk food is less easily available, that healthier food is the popular choice and walking and cycling are positively encouraged.

The NWE Directors of Public Health asked HEG to develop a collaborative approach to healthy weight in 2012 and the Food Active campaign was eventually launched in November 2013. It calls for policies to:
  • Control the marketing of junk food to children and young people
  • Place a duty on sugar sweetened beverages
  • Enforce 20mph speed limits in urban areas (lower traffic speeds make cycling, walking and play safer)
In the same way Liverpool and the NWE played an important role in the development of smoke free policies, Food Active hopes to bring local pressure to bear on government in calling for a more upstream approach to addressing obesity.

We began by building the evidence base around attitudes towards sugary drinks and modeling the effects a tax on such drinks may have on consumption. This in turn can be compared with the prevalence and cost of type 2 diabetes, and bariatric surgery etc. As data show teenagers are the highest consumers of sugary and ‘energy’ drinks, we established a media-friendly campaign called ‘Give Up Loving Pop’ to raise the debate and heighten the pressure for action. In the same way that regional tobacco control organisations have worked closely with national charities such as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Food Active has developed relationships with the Children’s Food Campaign and Action on Sugar.

In 2014, learning from ASH and the excellent work of local government on the Local Authority Declaration on Tobacco Control, Food Active started to develop a similar declaration on healthy weight. A regional meeting followed by workshops with three North West authorities showed that such a declaration could:
  • Raise with elected representatives and the public that local authorities have a role to play in addressing obesity
  • Help to show a wide range of policies (such as transport, planning and leisure) all have a part to play in promoting healthy weight
A Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight is more complex than its tobacco control equivalent and it is being developed in two parts; the first with some generic commitments (such as agreeing that obesity and overweight are a priority), the second more locally focused and aligning with local policies and priorities (for example Local Transport Plans).

As previously, the North West’s health needs will help to make the call for more concerted and resourced national action.

Robin will be speaking about the Food Active campaign tomorrow (9 September) at the CPPH Seminar - Sweetness, social norms and schools: factors influencing children and young people’s food and drink practices 

Robin Ireland

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