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UK ‘must look beyond NHS’ and consider more taxes and regulation to fix public health

The government needs to look beyond the NHS for policies that can improve the public’s health, with studies suggesting that more tax and regulation can actually be an effective part of a strategy to improve population health.

In a new briefing produced for the BBC, the King’s Fund, the Health Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Nuffield Trust argued that while the NHS has an important role to play in keeping the country healthy, the most significant influence is the economic, physical and social environment in which people live, or the so-called wider determinants of health.

For example, the study argued that the success of the smoking ban and some early evidence that the ‘sugar tax’ has forced manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar in their soft drinks suggests that greater regulation can be a positive way forward.

Polling commissioned by the Health Foundation found that two-thirds of UK adults support the soft drinks levy, while more than half agree with a minimum unit price for alcohol – a measure already in place in Scotland and soon to be rolled out in Wales.

A whopping 70% back limitations on fast food outlets in areas near schools, while 68% support restricting advertising of unhealthy food and drink. Around the same amount of people would agree with a ban on junk food advertising on TV before 9pm.

In an interview with NHE earlier this year, Public Health England boss Duncan Selbie claimed that the NHS is not a panacea for all health problems and actually needs to take a step back to ensure that the public aren’t overly reliant on its services. Instead, health and care providers should focus on initiatives that help people stay well in their homes and their communities, or what many would call ‘health creation.’

Today’s briefing from the four influential think tanks agreed that while the NHS does have a role to play, wider health determinants must be considered. Their importance is further illustrated by the fact that in the most deprived communities, the life expectancy for men is nine years less than in the wealthiest areas, and seven years less for women.

Helen McKenna, senior policy adviser at the King’s Fund, explained that it is essential that national and local government use “all means at their disposal to improve the public’s health,” including by being “bolder in using tax and regulation where this can be effective.” While the Conservatives may “balk at the idea” of creating a ‘nanny state,’ research suggests that these types of intervention “may enjoy stronger public support than they often assume.”

“As it approaches its 70th birthday, the NHS still enjoys overwhelming public support but funding pressures are beginning to take a toll and there are signs that people are becoming less satisfied with NHS services,” added McKenna.

Analysis from the same bodies also found yesterday that the NHS is no longer the envy of the world as it once used to be, with the health service actually falling behind other developed countries in its treatment of common diseases.

Top image: BrianAJackson


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