FSA + Change4life + Jamie Oliver = Public Health?

There has been outcry at the likely demise of the Food Standards Agency as a signal of turning a blind eye on the nation’s nutrition. But as Deborah Orr comments today we simply cannot lament every cut. We need to choose our battles.

This raises the question which has been widely reported – the ineffectiveness of some public health campaigns.

The white paper announced this week the ring-fencing of the public health budget – So I want to ask what makes a successful public health campaign?

Though smoking cessation has been largely successful compared to pre-1970 smoking prevalence. The link between smoking and cancer was discovered in 1950 – this has ultimately been a 60 year campaign and still about 3% of the British Public smoke.

Equally we have to consider the wastefulness or overreaction of some campaigns like last year’s Swine flu (500 000 unused vaccines)  but also remember that for some campaigns like the government’s anti-obesity campaign Change4life launched in January 2009, it will be too soon to tell. The marketing spend alone is unsustainable for a government and there are calls for business to have a more hands on approach. Yet a YouGov poll found that cooking shows are still more influential than government healthy eating campaigns.

I have a feeling it won’t be government led (dare I mention Jamie Oliver?) as it is often that case that these cost more but achieve less. Because of a simple human fact – our socialbility. This is why we are more likely to change our diets in a support group setting like weight-watchers perhaps than from endless GP consultations. This is not to condone some of the diets endorsed by various support groups but just to say that we tend to be influenced by our peers.

We do need evidence-based public health policy, but this evidence base needs to be given time. Short,  costly and solely government led campaigns are unlikely to have a sustainable health outcome.

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