‘Public health is defined as what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy, says Associate Professor Ken Harvey, La Trobe University School of Public Health.
‘To know if governments need to restrict people’s choices for the sake of public health, we need evidence about the causes of ill-health, and the effectiveness of proposed interventions.’
The link between smoking, lung cancer and other diseases is well established, but establishing how much obesity is caused by junk food is harder to quantify.
‘Many of our individual decisions do affect others: smoking in enclosed shared spaces and drink-driving cause harm, injury and death to others; and gambling addiction destroys families.’
‘Such individual actions have societal costs—premature death, hospitalisation and the need for remedial services—clearly, the problem of unhealthy consumption and the associated health consequences are societal problems that require a societal approach,’ he says.
According to Dr Harvey in considering which step is appropriate for a particular public health goal, the benefits to individuals and to society must be weighed against the erosion of individual freedom.
‘Public health policy, appropriately based on relevant evidence and research, is key to a societal approach. Economic costs and benefits need to be considered alongside health and societal benefits.’
‘Implementing less restrictive policy options—such as information provision—can increase public acceptance of more restrictive and often more effective interventions,’ he says.
Australians have accepted compulsory seatbelts, random breath testing, increasingly tighter regulation of the advertising and sale of alcohol and smoking bans in enclosed spaces.
‘The public has a right to better health. Evidence-based public health strategies, appropriately implemented, are vital to this effort. This may entail impinging on individual freedoms.’
‘However, when informed of the benefits, people are prepared to accept sensible curtailment of choice for a better life for themselves and the community as a whole,’ says Dr Harvey.
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