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Labour must regulate unhealthy habits to achieve its health mission

by LLB political Reporter
22nd May 23 2:35 pm

Labour cannot be deterred by fears of the “nanny state” if it is to achieve its objective of reducing health inequalities and improving healthy life expectancy, the Social Market Foundation has said in response to the announcement of the party’s health mission today.

Today Keir Starmer pledged to “improve healthy life expectancy for all” and to “halve the inequality gap between different regions of England”, but the SMF, a cross-party think tank, argued this will be difficult to achieve without bold action to curb consumption of junk food and alcohol.

The party has set out plans to ensure “fewer lives lost to the biggest killers”, singling out cardiovascular disease as being particularly common and highly preventable (See notes). It is estimated that 80% of heart attacks in under 75s could be avoided by stopping smoking, improving physical activity, cutting drinking and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Yet it is unclear whether Labour is willing to take the necessary steps to achieve such gains, sending mixed messages over how far it is willing to use regulation and pricing policies to address unhealthy behaviours.

Over the weekend, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said he is prepared to use “the heavy hand of state regulation” to tackle smoking and junk food marketing. Yet he has also expressed a preference for “working with the food and drink industry” on product reformulation. And Keir Starmer suggested this morning that minimum pricing for alcohol and taxes on unhealthy foods would be inappropriate during a cost-of-living crisis.

Forthcoming research from the SMF will show that the most effective policies to improve public health are often those seen as most politically challenging – for example, raising taxes on harmful products or regulating how and where they can be sold.

Future SMF research will also argue that there is more public support for such measures than is generally imagined, with the vast majority of health promoting policies receiving majority or plurality support.

Dr Aveek Bhattacharya, Research Director at Social Market Foundation, said, “While this morning’s speech was framed around the NHS, what really matters is keeping people alive and healthier for longer – a mission that extends far beyond the health service. Labour has shown some recognition of this fact, with its goal to take on the biggest killers, such as heart disease.

“But if it is to make real progress against these targets, it cannot be too squeamish about tackling unhealthy habits. In general, there is a trade-off between pursuing policies that are politically comfortable and pursuing policies that really make a difference on public health.

“Labour’s commitments on junk food marketing are therefore encouraging, but the party should also be more open to regulating the availability of unhealthy food and drink, minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and higher taxes.

“It is understandable that politicians are wary of being seen to tell people what to eat and drink. But if they are straightforward with voters and treat them like grown ups, polling suggests the public will be more receptive and understanding than politicians might anticipate.”

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