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A healthier life for all: The case for cross-government action

An essay collection published jointly by The All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and the Health Foundation

The essays in this collection are written by some of the most distinguished experts in the field of health. They are published jointly by the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and the Health Foundation. The series explores just how significantly issues such as obesity, alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle and psychological problems are affecting the UK.

It is currently estimated that 40% of NHS spending goes towards treating potentially avoidable health conditions. However, even more importantly, these illnesses have a great physical and psychological impact on people’s health and wellbeing, and their ability to live fulfilling lives.

Our contributors cover a range of key topics in public health. The first essay, by former Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, sets the scene by providing an overview of the grim toll that preventable ill health is taking on society. The essays then go on to examine different aspects of the public health conundrum, including the continued impact of smoking on personal health, the opportunities and risks associated with e-cigarettes, and the growing health risks associated with alcohol consumption, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. The next essays dig deeper into the underlying causes of poor health and avoidable illness, including mental ill health, in society. They identify highly significant determinants of health and wellbeing, such as physical environment, housing, poverty and employment.

While there is increasing awareness of the causes of avoidable illness, and its impact on both people and health and care services, perhaps a more difficult question to answer is how can policymakers put in place the right conditions and approaches to start to turn things around?

Change can be brought about in a number of ways. Two of our contributors consider this, in part by looking back at what public health regulation has delivered in the past. There is no doubt that regulation has an important role to play in modifying behaviour at the personal level, as we have seen through tobacco control legislation. It can also deliver environmental improvement, for example in air quality, with the associated population-wide health benefits. However, it is argued that regulation is only ever going to be part of the answer and that other approaches are required. For example, what strategies to encourage self-care are most effective, and what is the role of education in delivering grassroots behaviour change? Are adequate resources being allocated to public health, with the right structures in place to deliver the improved health outcomes that society so badly needs? And is there sufficient emphasis on health within other policy areas, such as education and housing, which we know greatly contribute to health outcomes?

This collection looks at all these aspects of public health improvement – and at the potential game-changing social and economic benefits to society of doing so. It concludes by proposing the need for a paradigm shift in policy, whereby health is seen as a fundamental component of a prosperous and sustainable society and a priority in all policy areas.

It is clear that improving the overall health of the population is one of policymakers’ greatest challenges, and one that cannot be ignored. By bringing together expert views on the key issues and potential solutions to this challenge, these essays provide a good starting point for exploring both the complexities – and great opportunities – associated with ensuring that society enjoys the highest possible levels of physical and psychological health and wellbeing.