'Nanny state' targets barriers to healthy life

WITH the smoking ban marking a milestone in the effort to improve the country's health, public health experts are now examining what else can be done to help Scotland shrug off its tag as the sick man of Europe.

Vices such as fat, sugar, alcohol, cars and even television viewing are all in the firing line as the government seeks to relieve pressure on the NHS by stopping diseases before they begin.

But for some, this increasing intrusion of the state into personal lives is taking health improvement too far.

Already the Scottish Executive is piloting plans to actively pursue overweight and other at-risk citizens with squads of "health enforcers" to encourage them to visit a GP for a check-up.

Chocolate, crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks are also to be banned from sale in schools under proposals put forward to tackle Scotland's spiralling rates of child obesity.

The Food Standards Agency has already set limits on the amount of salt people should eat, with a high-profile campaign urging them to consume less than 6 grams a day.

And health experts predict curbs on sugar and fat will soon be introduced to prevent manufacturers adding excessive amounts to their products.

Health advisers have also urged the Executive to cut back on the amount of time youngsters spend sitting in front of the television, with schemes aimed at getting parents to keep their children active.

And the World Health Organisation is targeting the family car as the latest worldwide menace.

The health body believes that society's growing dependence on cars is fuelling the obesity crisis and is proposing tough measures to encourage walking and other forms of exercise.

Professor Andrew Watson, a public health policy expert at Stirling University, said: "Public health is about trying to prevent problems before they occur.

"In the past we have mainly tried to use downstream approaches, which is about educating individuals and using health promotion campaigns. It is often difficult to see the effect these have.

"There is now a trend to think of more upstream approaches by tackling the cause of the problem. In the case of the smoking ban it sits somewhere in the middle, with smokers still being blamed."

But some experts believe health improvement does not require such extreme interventions from the government.

They claim that cultural changes similar to the stigmatisation of drink driving will see bad habits such as binge drinking gradually consigned to the history books.

London based think-tank the International Policy Network has been running a campaign against the increasing "Nanny-state" approach to improving public health.

Philip Stevens, director of the network's health promotion unit, said:

"It seems to start at the level of the World Health Organisation and filter down to countries themselves.

"They are already attempting to set limits on sugars and fat, and there is also a move against cars in a bid to get people walking more.

"The list of things they want to regulate is endless, from food, drink, chemicals and lifestyle choices.

"But often it is more a problem of economics than corporate conspiracy. The people who smoke the most, drink the most and eat the most junk food are also the poorest.

"By clamping down on the food industry it will constrain enterprise, which in turn will damage a country's economics and leave more people at this poorer end of the scale."

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