Thursday, 3 March 2016

Practice what you preach

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

I am invited to review the morning papers on a regular basis for BBC Radio Merseyside. I mainly pick health subjects to discuss and went for air pollution last week. A recent report suggests that 40,000 premature deaths annually in the UK are attributable to outdoor air pollution. The biggest contributor is diesel engines and we obviously need national policy in place to support people to make the switch; ideally to walking, cycling and public transport but - at a stretch - to engines not kicking out toxic fumes.

I had cycled to the studio that morning, as I usually do, but mentioned I own a car as well. The DJ focused on me and said, “I bet it’s a diesel …..”

Which got me thinking about practising what we preach. Instead of constantly haranguing people to eat better, exercise more, not smoke etc., are we putting our own house in order?  Yes, this can be important on an individual level, but it is critical at a population level.

We look to Government for legislation to support our healthier lifestyles and I was disappointed to hear about the latest delay in the publication of the Childhood Obesity Strategy. Yes, I would like to see a tax on sugary drinks and yes, I would like to see more controls on the marketing of junk food and drinks to young people.

But I would also like to see more powers to local authorities in their efforts to promote healthy weight. This is in fact what the Health Select Committee on Obesity recommended back in November: “Greater powers for local authorities to tackle the environment leading to obesity

Blackpool Council sign the Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight
Back in August 2014, the North West’s Healthy Weight campaign, Food Active, invited Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) to give a presentation in Manchester on their Local Authority Declaration on Tobacco Control. Could this approach also work for overweight and obesity? Essentially, can local authorities look in-house at their own polices to see how they impact on healthy weight?

Healthy Weight has proved to be a lot more complicated than Tobacco Control – I am not in any way suggesting that the latter is straightforward either – as of course we don’t have a product that is toxic in every way!

What has now become the Food Active Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight, has gone through many iterations and discussions. Our governance team, which includes myself and local public health practitioners and academics, considered a number of options. Should a Declaration be focused purely on sugar for example? Food Active decided not, as local authority policies on healthy weight would be much the same and could be positive (around encouraging active transport for example) as well as negative.

Of course Sugar Smart Cities, launched at the end of last year in Brighton, is an alternative equally valid approach where, given the evidence base around the amount of sugar in our diet, it has been singled out as a target.

On 20 January 2016, Blackpool Council became the first local authority in the country to pass the Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight. It was signed in front of cameras in February by the local Director of Public Health and the Cabinet Member for Reducing Health Inequalities.

The Declaration commits an authority to take measures (there are 12 listed) where possible to, for example: “protect residents from the commercial pressures and vested interests of the food and drink industry ….” and “consider how strategies, plans and infrastructures for regeneration and town planning positively impact on physical activity”. For the full list please visit

So Blackpool Council are practising what they preach and they are doing their best to take on a complex and challenging task. As the declaration states: “We recognise that we need to exercise our responsibility in developing and implementing policies which promote healthy weight”. It won’t be a piece of paper that lies on a shelf …..

And, no, I don’t have a diesel engine in my car.

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