Government should overcome fear of 'nanny state' charges and take strong line on obesity and smoking

The government must rise above accusations of 'nanny statism' and realise that soaring rates of obesity, sexually transmitted disease and other health problems can only be combated by strong national leadership to support individuals in taking responsibility for their own health, The King's Fund will say today at a breakfast debate.

Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Work Foundation chief executive Will Hutton and Brunel University's Professor David Marsland will also put forward their views on the role of government in creating a healthier nation (see notes to editors).

'There is now an overwhelming case for government action,' said The King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson.

'Individuals should take responsibility for their own health but there are also ways in which government can intervene. And if ministers are brave the public will support them. For example it is clear people are prepared to ban smoking in public places so that they and their children can lead healthier lives.'

The King's Fund director of policy (health) Anna Coote said:

'Not everyone has the same opportunity to make healthy choices; we are constrained by how much we earn, where we live, how well educated we are. You can't choose to eat healthy food, for instance, unless you know what is healthy, can find where to buy it and can afford to pay. You can't choose to take exercise if your work and family responsibilities leave you no extra time, if you can't afford to buy a bicycle or join a gym, or if your local streets are unsafe for pedestrians. The job of government is to create the conditions in which everyone has an equal chance to live healthily.'

A new briefing from The King's Fund into government health interventions over the past 50 years has been produced to coincide with the debate, which comes two days before the close of the government's public health consultation, Choosing Health. The King's Fund briefing includes the following points:

  • Since seatbelt legislation was introduced in the UK in 1983 there have been an estimated 50,000 fewer deaths, 1,590,000 fewer minor casualties and 590,000 fewer serious casualties.
  • The number of adult smokers in New York fell by 11 per cent a year after public smoking was banned and cigarette taxes were increased.
  • Folic acid was added to cereal grain products in the US in 1998 to prevent neural tube defects. Since then there has been a 19 per cent reduction in the frequency of these defects.

Notes to editors: 

1. The debate will take place between 8.15am to 10am at the King's Fund, 11-13 Cavendish Square, London W1G 0AN. For further information, interviews or invites to the event, please contact Beverley Cohen in the King's Fund media and public relations office on 020 7307 2632 or Michael Moruzzi on 020 7307 2585.

2. The King's Fund briefing into the role of the state in public health over the past 50 years was co-authored by The King's Fund Fellow Fellow in Health Policy Dr Karen Jochelson, Clare Delap and Sally Norwood. It is available on The King's Fund website from 26 May 2004.

3. Opinion Leader Research has been commissioned by The King's Fund, in conjunction with the Health Development Agency and the Department of Health, to conduct a survey into public attitudes to public health. The survey results, which will include opinions about government intervention regarding issues like obesity, passive smoking and food advertising, will be available in June.

4. In a recent BBC opinion poll, 73 per cent of respondants wanted a ban on smoking in public places, 72 per cent wanted junk food and fizzy drinks banned from schools and 65 per cent wanted government health warnings on bottles of alcohol.

5. In March this year, The King's Fund launched a research and development programme, Putting Health First, which suggests ways of changing attitudes and behaviour across the whole health system. The emphasis is towards improving population health and illness prevention, rather than treatment of illness. Ideas being explored include:

  • New local health organisations that people could join to receive information, advice and expertise on how to stay well, as well as receiving treatment when they are ill. They would be more like 'health clubs' than traditional doctors' surgeries.
  • Stronger leadership for health improvement at all levels, such as high profile, executive health commissioners, similar to 'health mayors' in some EU cities.

6. The King's Fund is an independent charitable foundation working for better health, especially in London. We carry out research, policy analysis and development activities, working on our own, in partnerships, and through grants. We are a major resource to people working in health, offering leadership and education courses; seminars and workshops; publications; information and library services; and conference and meeting facilities.