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Politicians Ignore The Public Health 'Ticking Time Bomb' At Their Peril

11/05/2017 16:31
MartinPrescott via Getty Images

It might be easy to think next month's election is all about 'Brexit', but politicians ignore the ticking time bomb in public health at their peril.

Health remains a pressing concern for most voters and while A&E performance and operation waiting time targets often dominate the debate on the NHS, a lack of leadership on improving the nation's health is at risk of crippling the NHS.

Public health budgets face a £400million cut nationwide from 2015/16 to 2020/21, which is already impacting on patient services.

These cuts run counter to common sense: obesity rates across the country remain stubbornly high; nearly one in six adults are regular smokers and 7.8million adults binge on alcohol.

As alarming as these figures appear, politicians have been slow and weak to tackle these public health challenges. Promised strategic approaches have either failed to materialise or, are so diluted, that they will be insufficient.

The government's watered-down childhood obesity strategy, foreshadowing so much but delivering so little, appalled many health campaigners, as did the failure to recognise the need for a new alcohol strategy.

Like Britain's major political parties, the BMA has published a manifesto - A vote for health. But instead of asking the public to vote for us, we're imploring politicians to take urgent action to improve the population's health and reverse cuts to public health budgets.

It may not be obvious to some in politics but one of the most effective ways to reduce long-term pressure on the NHS's frontline services is to plan for a healthier generation protected from preventable, lifestyle-related disease.

The BMA is calling on all political parties to work with health professionals to deliver a public health strategy focused on tackling the causes of ill health over a generation.

The next government must prioritise measures to tackle the impact of unhealthy food and drink, tobacco and alcohol on the public's health.

The next parliament must approve the sugary drinks tax which should encourage manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their recipes.

Doctors also support stronger restrictions to protect children and young people from the marketing and advertising of junk foods that is so pervasive in our society.

Cuts to public health budgets are a false economy, undermining a prevention-based approach and costing more in the long term - for the NHS, for our public funds, and for our health.

For example, many cases of type 2 diabetes are entirely preventable through public health approaches, yet, the number of people living with diabetes is increasing year on year in the UK. In 2010/11, the cost across the UK was estimated at £8.8 billion, a significant fraction of the NHS budget. If we do nothing, this will double in the next twenty years.

Industry is working for its shareholders' profits, not its shareholders' health. Too much power lies with those who sell sugar, alcohol and tobacco. It's up to MPs to work to reduce unhealthy ingredients like sugar, fat, salt and the overall calorific content of food.

A 'polluter pays' annual levy on tobacco companies could help fund stop-smoking services. The introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol set at no less than 50p per unit would begin to tackle alcohol problems.

A series of papers on public health published by the BMA found that efforts to improve the nation's health are being undermined by an inconsistent approach, sometimes failing to use effective, evidence-based measures. In England, successive governments have further frustrated these efforts with their failure to deliver a long-term plan.

Whoever is in government next, must make tackling the crisis in public health a priority. With the NHS at breaking point, and demand on services only set to rise, the ticking time bomb could detonate without further warning.

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