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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 15:33 GMT
'We need to improve health now'
By Ray Dunne
BBC News Online health staff

Obesity rates are rising sharply
Health Secretary John Reid has called for a public debate on how to improve the nation's health.

But critics say the consultation exercise is a waste of time. BBC News Online examines the row.

John Reid wants everyone in the country to take part in the government's big debate on public health.

He is looking for ideas on how to tackle "worrying trends" in obesity, sexually transmitted infections and cancer.

He wants to know just far people think the government should go to try to improve the nation's health.

Should it ban smoking in public places? Should it restrict junk food advertising? Should it give free condoms to young people?

Mr Reid says responses to the three-month consultation exercise will influence a new white paper on public health to be published later this year.

The rising cost of obesity
One in four men and one in five women is obese
Obesity is responsible for 9,000 premature deaths each year
Obesity reduces life expectancy by nine years
Being obese increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer
Obesity costs the UK 2bn a year
However, critics say the exercise is a waste of time. They point to last week's report from Derek Wanless, the former chief executive of NatWest.

He was asked by the Treasury to examine what the government should do to improve the nation's health. His conclusion was clear.

"After many years of reviews and government policy documents with little change on the ground, the key challenge now is delivery and implementation, not further discussion," he said.

Muddled ministers?

Some believe ministers are simply in a muddle over public health. They point to comments by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell on calls for junk food ads to be banned.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme just hours before John Reid launched his consultation exercise, she said she was sceptical about the merits of such a ban.

"Whatever happened to joined up government," says Charlie Powell of Sustain, a pressure group which is leading the campaign for a ban.

"I think she pre-empted the consultation," says Professor Sian Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health.

The rising cost of smoking
Over one in four adults in England smoke
Smoking causes a third of all cancer deaths
Passive smoking kills 1,000 people each year
Millions of people are exposed to second-hand smoke at work
There is some concern that ministers may be simply putting off making the tough decisions.

"The consultation will mean further delay in action to tackle very urgent public health problems in areas such as tobacco, alcohol, obesity," says Professor Carol Black of the Royal College of Physicians.

"This college, like many other organisations, has produced detailed evidence-based recommendations on these issues which already provide answers to many of the questions posed in 'Choosing Health?"

Obesity timebomb

Dr Peter Tiplady of the British Medical Association agrees.

"We know that introducing a ban on smoking in public places would save over 1,000 lives a year," he says.

"We know that many of our children are going to grow up to be obese adults. It is a timebomb.

"We know that ensuring young people have access to advice about sexually transmitted infections and family planning would reduce the number of STIs considerably. We need urgent action now."

The rising cost of unsafe sex
One in 10 young women has Chlamydia, which can cause infertility
The number of people being diagnosed with HIV jumped 20% last year
fact here
Teenage birth-rates in England are the highest in western Europe
One in four conceptions end up in an abortion
Some say the government is avoiding making these tough decision because of fears it will be accused of running a "nanny state".

"This fear of nannyism has been holding them back," says Dr Geoff Rayner, chairman of the UK Public Health Association.

"They are mesmerised by it. They need to act. They need to show leadership."

Ministers for their part insist that the public's voice must be heard.

"These are issues for all of us, not just for the government," Mr Reid insists.

"I want everyone to make their voice heard because everyone's future is at stake."

The public is being given three months to respond to the government's consultation exercise on improving public health.

Officials say a white paper outlined proposed solutions to the country's health problems will follow soon after.

"The consultation is the way forward," says Alastair McCapra of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.

"People have to be engaged about their health. The government cannot and should not ride roughshod over people.

"The white paper will bring the whole public health debate together."


SEE ALSO:
Public asked how to boost health
03 Mar 04  |  Health


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