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Health as if everybody counted blog

Ted Schrecker

Ted Schrecker

Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institute, a partnership between Bruyère Continuing Care and the University of Ottawa, and a member scientist of the Population Health Improvement Research Network (PHIRN). A political scientist by background and an activist by inclination, Ted has a special interest in globalization, political economy, and issues (such as health and human rights) at the interface of science, ethics, law and public policy. From 2005-2007, he coordinated the Globalization Knowledge Network of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, and subsequently was one of the lead authors of a report to WHO that examined the implications of the Commission’s findings for future research priorities. He is currently editing the Ashgate Research Companion to the Globalization of Health; a four-volume collection of major works in global health (http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book235377) that he co-edited with colleagues Ron Labonté, K.S. Mohindra and Kirsten Stoebenau has just been published in the Sage Library of Health and Social Welfare.

Photo courtesy of Ron Garnett, AirScapes.ca

Our big fat complicated population health problem: Perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Friday, 30 November 2012
in CHNET-Works!

 Overweight and obesity contribute directly to a variety of adverse health outcomes, as pointed out in a recent Lancet series.  At least in high-income countries, these conditions exhibit a pronounced socioeconomic gradient, and therefore present both a challenge and an opportunity.  A challenge, because of the complex etiology of overweight and obesity; an opportunity, because of the tremendous improvements in health that can be anticipated from any population-wide shift toward healthy weights.

Two recent syntheses of research findings offer useful insights, and also a few (intentional and unintentional) warnings, about how best to address overweight and obesity. A report by a committee of the US Institute of Medicine got the diagnosis absolutely right, from a health equity perspective: “If a community has no safe places to walk or play, lacks food outlets offering affordable healthy foods, and is bombarded by advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages, its residents will have less opportunity to engage in physical activity and eating behaviors that that allow them to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.” Unfortunately this valuable analysis was not, in the end, used to arrive at system-level recommendations appropriate to the scale of the problem. The committee described its approach in terms of “large-scale transformative approaches,” but in its proposed responses it drifted back into behavioural nostrums like “mak[ing] physical activity and integral and routine part of life” and “mak[ing] schools a national focal point for obesity prevention” – an example of the phenomenon Jennie Popay and colleagues have described as “lifestyle drift.” 

Blog-Overweight

Some environments are far more supportive of maintaining healthy weights than others.

 

A recent literature review on policy interventions to tackle the obesogenic environment produced by the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy, a research unit headed by expat Canadian John Frank, is more effective at avoiding what I have come to think of as the lifestyle trap. Focused on the situation of working-age adults, the review is organized using a framework called ANGELO (Analysis Grid for Environments Linked to Obesity): a simple four-by-two matrix in which four aspects of the environment – physical, economic, political or legislative, and sociocultural – are each analyzed at two levels, micro (the household or community) and macro (the region, province or nation). The authors make a point that has broad applicability in other population health contexts: “[M]any strategies aimed at obesity prevention may not be expected to have a direct impact on BMI, but rather on pathways that will alter the context in which eating, physical activity and weight control occur. Any restriction on the concept of a successful outcome … is therefore likely to overlook many possible intervention measures that could contribute to obesity prevention.”

 

 The authors of the review are candid about the difficulties facing large-scale interventions that are expensive or challenge vested interests, yet do not shrink from asking tough questions about the need for these, noting (for example) that the transport mode split in urban areas is 84% by car versus 9 percent walking in the United States, while it’s 36% by car versus 39% walking in Sweden. “Suffice it to say, it has been a concerted combination of infrastructure provision, integrated transport planning and disincentives for private cars which has helped to bring about the higher active travel rates,” which include a much larger role for cycling as well. And they argue that because of the relatively high price elasticity of soft drink taxation, it should be considered as a promising intervention along with price reductions of healthy foods like fruit and vegetables. (As an aside on a related point, I once heard a leading aboriginal health researcher wonder why Ontario can ensure that a bottle of whisky costs the same in the province’s far north as in downtown Toronto, but can’t or won’t do this for a carton of milk or a bag of apples.)

 

A further step in the Scottish review was to create another matrix classifying potential interventions on two criteria: certainty of effectiveness and potential population impact. Here a sugared beverage tax scored high on both criteria, as did healthy eating advocacy campaigns backed with supportive regulation, although curiously none of the policies that have been adopted to increase the costs of car travel scored similarly high, despite the authors’ extensive documentation of the role of public policy and their warning about defining successful outcomes too narrowly. But this is a minor disagreement with an important research synthesis on a complex problem that also provides a methodological template for reviews in other areas. It should be read by everyone concerned with social determinants of health, even if not specifically with overweight. Health policy analysis has joined other, more familiar high quality products for which Scotland is justifiably known far beyond its borders.  

 Blog-overweight 2

 Not the only quality product of Scotland.

 

 

 

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Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 06 November 2012
in CHNET-Works!

"The fog comes," Carl Sandburg famously wrote, "on little cat feet." With roughly the same amount of fanfare, in September a consortium led by Sir Michael Marmot published a summary of its findings on how to reduce health inequities in the 53 countries of the World Health Organization's European region. The region includes some of the wealthiest countries in the world, and some of those with the smallest disparities in health, but is hardly homogeneous. Mortality among children under 5 ranges from just over 2 per 1000 live births in Iceland to more than five times that figure in Bulgaria and Romania. Child poverty on a standardized cross-national measure is higher than 30 percent in Romania, three times as high as in the Nordic countries and a few others. And urban air pollution (concentration of particulate matter) is more than five times as high in the capitals of Turkey and Bulgaria as in those of Estonia and Iceland.

The consortium's argument will be familiar to readers of earlier reports in this vein, including the original Commission on Social Determinants of Health, but several points are worth mentioning because of their direct and immediate transferability to the Canadian context.

  • who euro-review-pic-1Air pollution remains a health hazard in many European cities.
    Photo: eifelyeti110’s photostream; reproduced under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence
    The consortium writes that "[h]uman rights are central in our approach to action on the social determinants of health". The fact that this was not true of the 2008 report has been identified as a significant omission by the distinguished human rights scholar Audrey Chapman, among others.
  • Social protection – including "a minimum standard of healthy living for all" that includes a nutritious and sustainable diet – is clearly and correctly identified as essential for reducing health inequity. Further, the consortium refers approvingly to the United Nations Social Protection Floor Initiative, a relatively low profile effort that is explicitly linked to a human rights approach. Could this be the start of an overdue convergence of concerns about health equity and social policy that often have been addressed by separate organizations and groups of professionals working in isolation from one another?
  • The effects of unemployment and exposure to hazardous work environments are foregrounded, at a time when youth unemployment is higher than 50 percent in two WHO Euro countries and a source of concern throughout the region.
  • Also foregrounded is the issue of health inequities among older Euro region residents – a concern with much broader applicability as populations age and social exclusion threatens to increase, especially in countries with high levels of economic inequality, a troubling trend that was evident even before the economic crisis.
  • Most importantly, both the economic crisis and many policy responses are identified as threats to health equity. In the consortium's words: "Recognition of the health and social consequences of economic austerity packages must be a priority in further shaping of economic and fiscal policy in European countries," with health and social affairs ministries and – at the transnational level – the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the International Labour Organization given a voice.

who euro-review-pic-2Social exclusion threatens the European elderly, especially those with limited resources.
Photo: Zilverbat.’s photostream, reproduced under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence
Think, for a moment, about what institutionalizing this last recommendation would mean in a Canadian jurisdiction like Ontario.

My previous posting featured an important new report on redesigning social assistance in Ontario. Its arrival, too, could be described with reference to little cat feet. Ontario would do well to adopt both the consortium's insights about the inseparability of social protection and health and its view that "current economic difficulties are a reason for action on social determinants of health not inaction." But where will the necessary leadership come from? However well intentioned the proponents of taxes on 'junk food,' availability restrictions and warning labels on French fries may be, it may not come from them.

Related resource of interest

Video of Sir Michael Marmot's keynote speech at the Canadian Medical Association annual meeting in August 2012, which focused on health equity, is now available online.

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Messages on inequality, from sources far and near

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Sunday, 28 October 2012
in CHNET-Works!

Taking health inequity seriously requires direct engagement with increasing economic inequality and the underlying macro-scale economic processes.  A remarkably thoughtful overview of those processes is provided by Zanny Minton Beddoes in a recent special report in The Economist.  (At this writing, the special report is still open access; get it while you can.)   Despite obligatory genuflection to the economic theology that economic inequality reduces ‘efficiency,’ Beddoes focuses on the destructive consequences of rising inequality (especially at the top of the economic pyramid) and on how public policy can and should respond.  Everyone interested in the future of population health should read her report, which is especially scathing on how various US policies actually magnify inequality.  Against the background of that country’s imminent money-driven elections it is worth quoting her concluding critique of the Obama government’s approach as “just a laundry list of small initiatives.  [New Deal initiator Franklin] Roosevelt would have been appalled at the timidity.  A subject of such importance requires something much bolder.”

Closer to home, on October 24 a commission that had been asked to review social assistance in Ontario released its report – with an almost total absence of media attention apart from the Toronto Star.  (Readers and viewers to whom social assistance might actually matter are not highly valued by the managers of commercial media, but even the CBC missed this story.)  Among other findings, the report recommended an immediate increase of $100 per month to “the lowest rate category, single adults receiving Ontario Works, as a down payment on adequacy while the system undergoes transformation.”  This report should serve as an overdue starting point for moving public health advocacy beyond tanning beds, Red Bull and salt to consider underlying distributional issues such as income adequacy.  We know, for example, that eating a healthy diet while keeping a roof over your head in much of Ontario is arithmetically impossible if you are paying market rents.

Will the various communities of researchers, practitioners and advocates concerned with health equity engage with these recommendations, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the prospect of political change in Ontario?  What kinds of followup will be initiated by Medical Officers of Health, and by university- and hospital-based researchers, who are far removed from having to choose between paying the rent and buying fruits and vegetables or paying their children’s dentist?  We shall see.

 

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Unemployment isn’t working for public health, Part 1

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Wednesday, 17 October 2012
in CHNET-Works!

On January 1 of this year, workers at the Electro-Motive Diesel locomotive plant in London, Ontario were locked out of their jobs after refusing to take a 50 percent pay cut. In February, the parent company (Caterpillar Inc.) closed the plant and moved production to Indiana. Now, a story in The Globe and Mail reports that just 68 of the 485 union workers who lost their jobs have found new full-time work. Marriages are crumbling; food bank use is climbing; and the plant stands vacant. (Readers may want to access both this and an earlier, equally important story – also by reporter Tavia Grant, whose coverage has been stellar – before the Globe's content moves behind a paywall.) The situation of former Electro-Motive workers is part of a larger picture of deindustrialization: citywide, one in 15 Londoners – an estimated 24,000 people - live in a household receiving Ontario Works ('welfare'). This means, by definition, an income well below Statistics Canada's Low Income Cutoff.

electro-motive-london-1The vacant plant in London, Ontario previously occupied by
Electro-Motive Diesel

Many health researchers and practitioners in Canada have been slow to grasp the health implications of economic restructuring and the changing nature of work. (The authors of the landmark Code Red study in Hamilton, the topic of an earlier posting, are a notable exception.) Elsewhere, understandings are more advanced. One of the nine knowledge networks that supported the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health addressed employment and working conditions; a fine summary of its findings appeared in BMJ in 2010. The International Labour Organization has for years been promoting what it calls a Decent Work Agenda. The agenda does not specifically refer to health but recognizes the importance of employment and working conditions for overall well-being, especially in the context of the post-2008 economic crisis. Until July 2012, the ILO's Global Job Crisis Observatory kept tabs on how the crisis was affecting employment, and is still a valuable source of background.

So long as governments see little alternative to the reorganization of production across national borders in search of lower labour costs and more 'flexible' employment regimes, an increasing proportion of the population – certainly in the high-income world – can anticipate a future of shrinking earnings, precarious employment, and reliance on multiple but often unpredictable income streams. This is not a fact of nature, but rather a consequence of political choices. The Commission on Social Determinants of Health correctly attributed the unequal distribution of opportunities for leading a healthy life to "a toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics." Nowhere is this clearer than in the decline of employment as a central concern of public policy. It is time for all those concerned with studying and protecting population health to come clean on this point, and to demand that political leaders do the same. Where, for example, are the voices of the province's Medical Officers of Health on this issue?

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People who get it, Part 2

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Friday, 14 September 2012
in CHNET-Works!

I've tried to make the case in previous postings for considering public finance as a public health issue. In a new article in Foreign Affairs,(1) Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Andrea Louise Campbell makes several relevant arguments. She isn't concerned with health, and she is writing in the US context, but many of the analytical issues are relevant to our situation.

Campbell starts with the observation that the percentage of GDP that Americans pay in taxes is lower than in any high-income country: 24.1 percent. In the OECD as a whole, the figure is lower only in Chile (which has no national personal income tax) and Mexico. For Canada, the figure is 32 percent – higher than the United States, but a dramatic contrast with the Nordic countries, Italy, Belgium, Austria and France, where the figures are over 40 percent. She also points out that the drastic increase in economic inequality in the US, in particular concentration at the top of the economic scale (the one percenters, defined literally and statistically), is partly attributable to cuts in personal income tax during the Bush II presidency. (We know by way of the work of Emmanuel Saez that it is also a consequence of a steady rise in the market incomes of the one-percenters that began circa 1980; the relation between that trend and subsequent public policies must be left for another posting.)

There is more to the picture, though. Campbell points out that the much higher tax revenues available to European governments come not from higher and strongly progressive income taxes, as we might like to think, but rather from high consumption taxes, which are actually regressive: in other words, their impact is proportionally larger as you move down the income scale "because lower-income households tend to spend everything they earn." What, then, accounts for the contrast between the US and most of continental Europe in such matters as poverty and income inequality? Part of the answer lies not on the revenue side, but rather on the expenditure side: "In Europe, regressive taxes are matched with highly redistributive states. In the United States, mildly progressive taxes are matched with a not very redistributive state." Still another contributor is the much higher prevalence of low-wage jobs in the US ... and although Campbell does not make the point, that in turn probably has a lot to do with the weakness of unions, in particular outside the public sector.

tom slaterTom Slater, University of Edinburgh

Geographer Tom Slater, at the University of Edinburgh, is likewise concerned with various dimensions of economic inequality. Much of his earlier work was concerned with the process of gentrification and how it disrupts the lives of people who are displaced. In one forthcoming paper, he offers a powerful critique of the "cottage industry" of neighbourhood effects research in urban studies. Like Campbell, he is not specifically concerned with health, but much of what he says is immediately relevant to the study of neighbourhood effects on health. It has already been pointed out, in a widely cited article by Steven Cummins and colleagues, that most of the usual study designs are likely to understate such effects, because they involve a static definition of place (normally with reference to residential location) rather than a relational one that reflects the complexities of daily life on limited resources.

Slater's critique is more fundamental: such studies presume that where people live is the problem, rather than asking "why do people live where they do in cities? If where any given individual lives affects their life chances as deeply as neighbourhood effects proponents believe, it seems crucial to understand why that individual is living there in the first place" (italics in original). Failing to begin by questioning the operations of an economic system that sorts people across metropolitan space based on their purchasing power in land and housing markets means that "neighbourhoods ... become the problem rather than the expression of the problem to be addressed." This warning should be kept in mind by health researchers who generally tend to shy away from such structural explanations, preferring instead to focus on how neighbourhoods are conducive to certain kinds of 'health behaviours' like smoking and unhealthy eating.

In another forthcoming paper, Slater borrows a term from a book edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger - Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance – in which the contributors address the question of "what keeps ignorance alive, or allows it to be used as a political instrument?" Canadian readers even vaguely familiar with the track record of our current national government need no explanation of this question's importance. (Proctor's interest in this topic began with research on the tobacco industry's efforts to create doubt about the health effects of smoking; David Michaels, who has done superb work on how industries manufacture uncertainty with respect to impacts on health and the environment, is one of the contributors.)

Slater argues that a right-wing think tank in Britain has played an important role in producing and sustaining ignorance about the root causes of poverty, ascribing it to failures of personal responsibility and the creation of 'dependency' by already minimal programs of social provision in much the same way as the protagonists of welfare 'reform' in the United States during the 1990s. The Conservative-led government that came to power in 2010 enthusiastically adopted this analysis, proposing workfare requirements and multi-billion-pound cuts in benefits while ignoring research evidence that such measures "do not lift people out of poverty, but rather remove them from welfare rolls, expand dramatically the contingent of the working and non-working poor, and affect their daily existence negatively in almost every way imaginable." The lack of available jobs, as a result of decades of deindustrialization, is simply ignored - a point also made eloquently by Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

These are superficial renderings of complex and important papers, but they have several key messages for everyone working in population and public health in Canada. First and foremost, we have much to learn from those working in disciplines that have no direct connection with health, and outside Canada. The retreat of the state in Canada from redistributive policies was well established before the financial crisis. Since then, in Canada as elsewhere, we have been told that expenditure cutbacks – "austerity" – were essential in order to keep government deficits from becoming unmanageable. Most current approaches to austerity are highly selective, though. They involve cuts to expenditures (or moratoria on new investments) that mainly benefit the least well-off; they demand little or no sacrifice from the wealthy; and they focus almost exclusively on the expenditure side. For example, as noted in a previous posting Ontario's Drummond Commission on the province's fiscal future was ordered not to consider the option of raising taxes from their historically low levels – a choice that has clear implications for any society's ability to provide the opportunity for a healthy life to all.

By now it should not be contentious to state that poverty and chronic economic insecurity are hazardous to health. It may not be stating the case too strongly to suggest that controversy on that point is manufactured, in the same sense that controversy about the health hazards of tobacco and the evidence for personal fecklessness as a major cause of poverty are manufactured. To be sure, there is much still to be learned about how social determinants of health affect health equity, but the apparent determination of research funding agencies not to support the relevant lines of inquiry itself merits study using the rubric of agnotology. Finally, Slater's trenchant critique of the neighbourhood effects literature addresses not only the limitations of a particular kind of inquiry, but also the imperative of methodological self-consciousness in all forms of research on health and its social determinants.

(1) Unfortunately, only a summary of the article is available for open access

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