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Our big fat complicated population health problem, Part 2: It may be worse than we thought

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Monday, 25 March 2013
in CHNET-Works!

Big fatFew now dispute the importance for population health of the rapidly rising prevalence of overweight and obesity, in countries rich and poor alike.  What to do about it is a matter of greater dispute.  An accumulating body of evidence suggests, as Rob Moodie and colleagues argued earlier this year in The Lancet, that overweight and obesity should be regarded at least in part as an “industrial epidemic” in which “the vectors of spread are not biological agents, but transnational corporations” like those that dominate the food and drink industries. 


In this vein, an important  exposé in the November-December 2012 issue of Mother Jones tried to answer the question of how the sugar industry “kept scientists from asking: Does sugar kill?”  The authors obtained documents dating back to 1942 describing the industry’s use of a strategy that David Michaels, a former senior official of the US government, has called “manufacturing uncertainty”.  The strategy was perfected by the tobacco and asbestos industries, but has been applied far more widely to resist regulation and other policy interventions aimed at protecting public health.  On March 20, The Guardian  reported on a series of talks given in Britain by Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist who argues that: “The food industry has made [sugar] into a diet staple because they know when they do, you buy more.”   This point is of special importance because of the continuing insistence, notably in the documents supporting and emanating from the UN High-level Meeting on Non-communicable Diseases, that public-private collaborations can contribute meaningfully to prevention of such conditions as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  And evidence is accumulating that fructose, in particular, has destructive effects that go beyond its direct contribution to excessive caloric intake – a point that was emphasized during a panel on sugary drinks I recently attended at the 15th Public Health Research Conference at Mexico’s impressive National Institute of Public Health.

As noted in an earlier posting, rising overweight and obesity represent a complex problématique that cannot be isolated from issues of political economy, health equity and social justice.  On the political economy front, a fascinating recent open-access article on “exporting obesity” argues that the combination of farm subsidies in the United States and the removal of trade and investment barriers between the US and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement  led to rapid transformation of the Mexican “consumer food environment” in several unhealthy ways.  One of these involved a dramatic increase in US exports of (subsidized) corn to Mexico, partly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) following a 2006 World Trade Organization ruling against a Mexican tax on soft drinks sweetened with anything other than cane sugar.  Pediatric obesity researcher Michael Goran, one of the panelists at the Mexican meeting, has made a similar point.  These exports have, in turn, no doubt contributed to a prevalence of obesity in Mexico that is actually higher among adults than in Canada.  So, too, has the rapid transformation of the Mexican food system through foreign direct investment.


On the social justice front, an article written by Goran and colleagues, including the Director of Health Assessment and Epidemiology for Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, demonstrates a pronounced socioeconomic gradient in the prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity in the sprawling county, “with a striking fourfold difference in childhood obesity prevalence between the communities with the highest and lowest levels of EH [economic hardship].”  Equity concerns have often been left aside in discussions of how best to deal with overweight, obesity, and their health consequences.  This finding underscores the urgency of addressing not only the challenges presented by corporate interests in the food industry but also such issues as economic deprivation, access to and affordability of healthy diets, and disparities in access to safe options for physical activity as part of any comprehensive approach to the problem.

LA

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More on diet and population health

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Tuesday, 08 January 2013
in CHNET-Works!

A recent posting featured two important research syntheses on overweight and obesity. Another, especially useful for non-specialist audiences, appeared as a special report on “The big picture” in the December 15 issue of The Economist.

Commendably, the report does not sugar-coat the difficult politics of reducing overweight and obesity. It notes, for example, that “while lots of people remain fat, the associated ailments represent big business for the drug companies.”  It is candid about the role of companies like soft-drink manufacturers and fast-food chains in contributing to the epidemic of overweight, and the conflicts of interest that can arise in partnerships like one between Nestlé and the International Diabetes Federation, or the “Responsibility Deal” between food and alcohol companies and Britain’s Department of Health. (In negotiations about the action plan that emerged from the UN Summit on non-communicable diseases in September 2011, Canada was among the countries pressing for removal of text that mentioned such conflicts.) And it presents a succinct overview of efforts to deal with overweight and obesity through taxation and regulation. So far, those efforts have met with modest success, although that may be a consequence of modest ambition rather than of limitations intrinsic to the available policy instruments.

Unfortunately, the report is not open-access, although non-subscribers will be able to read part of it online. Unfortunately as well, the report pays insufficient attention to connections between the built environment and overweight, or to the cost of a healthy diet. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing signal that approaches going beyond the usual health promotion nostrums are moving into the policy mainstream.

Shortly before the Economist report appeared, Britain’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released its annual Family Food Survey for the year 2011. Among the survey’s disturbing findings: fruit and vegetable purchases were 10 percent lower in 2011 than in 2007, with an even larger decline among the bottom fifth of Britain’s income distribution. Households in the lowest tenth of the income distribution were spending 17 percent more on food in 2011 than in 2007. A report in The Guardian quoted the director of the consumer protection organization Which? as saying: “One in six people say rising food prices are making it difficult to eat healthily,” and the preceding month a report in the same newspaper warned of a “nutrition recession” - this in a country where benefit caps planned for 2013 will cut the incomes of many people in full-time jobs as well as those who cannot find work. 

Closer to home, Ottawa's deparment of public health released the lastest issue of an annual calculation showing that if you are living on social assistance and paying market rents in the city, it is arithmetically impossible - as it is much of the rest of the province- to pay for the diet recommended by Ontario's Public Health Standards. In the capital of a weathly G7 country, 48,000 people a month turn to food banks. Against the background of ongoing concern about health care spending and areport recommending an immediate increase in Ontario social assistance rates to " the lower rate category, single adults receiving Ontario Works, as a down payment on adequacy while the system undergoes transformation," it may be worth asking`just how does making healthiy diets unaffordable contribute to a healthier population and lower health system costs down the road?

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
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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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HEST: A new frontier for action on health equity? *

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Tuesday, 28 February 2012
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In December 1995, Cynthia Wiggins was hit by a dump truck while crossing several lanes of traffic in suburban Buffalo, New York; shortly afterward, she died from her injuries. The 17-year-old African-American woman had to cross the arterial road from her bus stop because the bus that took her from downtown to her job in the posh Walden Galleria mall was not allowed on mall property. It was later revealed that the local public transportation authority had for years tried, unsuccessfully, to get permission to stop in the mall's parking lot. In 1999, a lawsuit charging the mall's owners with racial discrimination was settled for $2.55 million (to benefit Ms Wiggins' son) without admission of liability.

Ms Wiggins' death is an especially dramatic example of the connections between transportation policy and social exclusion: specifically, support for a form of apartheid in the United States long after it was challenged in legislation and jurisprudence. In Los Angeles, The Bus Riders' Union has used a variety of tactics, including litigation under national civil rights legislation, to seek improvements in a transit service that mainly serves a darker-skinned, subaltern population unable to afford the costs of driving in a car-oriented metropolis. Although we are not (yet) familiar with similar extremes in Canada, an important and neglected 2009 report prepared for Human Resources and Social Development Canada on mobility and social exclusion in Hamilton, Toronto and Montréal concluded that "the evidence uncovered in terms of mobility and accessibility patterns is suggestive of social exclusionary processes that may prevent various vulnerable groups," specifically low income people, seniors and single parent households, "from accessing the places required for their daily needs." Since social exclusion functions as a social determinant of (ill) health, the role of transportation in social exclusion should automatically be of concern to the public health community.

There are more immediate reasons for concern. One involves the health consequences of transport-related (mainly automotive) air pollution, reviewed among many other places in a 2005 WHO-Europe report and in the same year by the Ontario College of Family Physicians. It is also likely that an inverse relation exists between income and exposure, although the relation is complicated both by the limitations of measuring exposure based on residential location (most people don't spend most of their time at home) and by the "particular social geography" of cities like Montréal. (I would be delighted if readers can identify useful literature reviews on this topic.)

A second issue is the relation between metropolitan form and injuries and deaths from road accidents, where data on the socioeconomic gradient are hard to find and primary data are often collected by law enforcement agencies, using categories that have limited relevance to population health. (Again, readers are invited to contribute sources to the conversation.) A 2003 article by Reid Ewing and colleagues developed a "sprawl index" for 448 metropolitan counties in the United States, matched this against "all-mode" traffic fatality statistics, and concluded that "sprawl is a significant risk factor for traffic fatalities, especially for pedestrians." In the ten counties with the most compact urban form, fatality rates averaged 5.6 per 100,000 population; in the ten counties with the least compact form – that is, the most sprawling ones – the average was 26.3 per 100,000 population. However, hazardous environments for pedestrians are common even in cities that are relatively compact by North American standards.

hest-picture-1-1-of-1Hazardous environments for pedestrians are common, as shown in this picture taken from the University of Ottawa’s downtown campus.

A third reason for concern involves the relation among transport policy, the built environment, and overweight and obesity, which are now recognized as one of the most urgent public health challenges. The idea of obesogenic environments has gained widespread acceptance, and represents an essential challenge to the emphasis on 'lifestyles' or 'healthy choices' that characterizes many health promotion efforts. Isolating the specific contribution of transport policy is complicated by the fact that in the metropolitan environment, many things are going on at once. For example, neighbourhoods may be more conducive to physical activity ('walkable'), but may also have few full-service grocery stores but lots of convenience stores and fast-food outlets, or neighbourhoods where the built environment is conducive to walkability may also be those where crime is highest. However, some evidence shows a direct link between settlement patterns or transportation and obesity. For example, a 2004 study using a sprawl index – not the same one used by Ewing and colleagues – and self-reports of Body Mass Index (BMI) found that each 1-point increase in the sprawl index (on a scale of 100, values for large US metropolitan areas ranged from 6 to 100) was associated with a 0.5 percent increase in the risk of obesity, after individual-level variables like income, gender, age and education were controlled for. Almost by definition, urban sprawl implies a high reliance on automobiles for transportation, as shown in a classic graph produced by Jeffrey Kenworthy

hest-picture-2-1Source: P. Newman and J. Kenworthy, “‘Peak Car Use’: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence,” World Transport Policy and Practice 17 (June 2011), reproduced with permission.

Finally, there is the need to shift transportation patterns in order to limit climate change, which itself is likely to have substantial adverse health impacts that will be inequitably distributed, falling first and hardest on people and regions that contributed least to the buildup of greenhouse gases. A 2009 article in The Lancet pointed out that transport emissions are rising faster than all other categories, and argued using scenarios for London and Delhi that there would be substantial health benefits from moving to "sustainable transport" including both lower-emission motor vehicles and more walking and cycling, quite independent of the effects on climate change. Elsewhere, a recent assessment of the effects of reducing automobile usage for short trips (1.6 km or less) in the Midwestern United States came to similar conclusions, and further projected several billion dollars a year in health care cost savings. As with other studies cited here these are only selections from a very large literature, but the pattern is clear.

So far as I know, the acronym HEST (for Healthy, Equitable and Sustainable Transportation) is my own invention. There is no shortage of useful information about how to begin, starting with a WHO evidence review mentioned in an earlier posting that identified transportation as an important area for action to reduce health inequity. Kenworthy has listed "ten key transport and planning decisions for sustainable city development," including de-emphasis of freeway and road; planning for employment and housing growth in the city centre and sub-centres; and – critically – a planning process that "is a visionary 'debate and decide' process, not a 'predict and provide,' computer-driven process." (A recent Toronto Star commentary on how the city's planning is now driven by the "pseudo-science" of traffic engineering made a similar point.) Ewing and colleagues have described the "five D's of development": density, diversity, design destination accessibility, and distance to transit. This source is one chapter in an excellent book called Making Healthy Places published by Island Press. World Streets, a web site specifically devoted to "equity-based transport," is another valuable and provocative resource.

Some Canadian organizations have taken up the challenge. I've already mentioned the work of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. In 2007, Toronto Public Health produced a report on air pollution, traffic and health that concluded: "Given there is a finite amount of public space in the city for all modes of transportation, there is a need to reassess how road space can be used more effectively to enable the shift to more sustainable transportation modes" like "walking, cycling and on-road public transit." (I don't think the city's current mayor has read it.) And Alberta Health Services has produced a well researched and hard-hitting fact sheet on urban sprawl and health. Doubtless much more is going on, and I hope readers will post appropriate news, citations and links. 

hest-picture-3-2

hest-picture-4-2

Predictably, our colleagues in other countries have been less polite and more proactive. Margaret Douglas and colleagues in Britain's NHS (including the Director of Public Health for a primary care trust in Manchester) wonder whether cars are the new tobacco, pointing to the multiple negative effects on health and sustainability of auto-oriented transport systems and the influence of the "car lobby." Also from the UK, writing in the December, 2011 issue of Public Health Today Philip Insall calls for a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas, noting that some continental cities have already made this move and that it would eliminate up to 580 child deaths and serious injuries each year. (Lower speed limits are just one kind of traffic calming measure; many others involve design changes, as noted in an important review by the Canada's National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy just released last November.) And Andy Jones, writing about obesogenic environments, says: "Maybe we just need to force society to change. Excluding traffic from city centres, radically increasing parking charges, forcing employees to walk at least part of the way to work by removing workplace car parks" as well as taxing high-fat foods.

Forcing society to change can be difficult when we have things like elections, and that's as it should be. Canada's public health community could, however, be much more energetic in advocating for such changes, and providing leadership to ensure that their equity and health benefits are part of the public debate during and between elections.

* Unfortunately, as with previous postings some hyperlinks lead to sources that are not available on an open-access basis. I have tried to find open-access materials wherever possible.

Diabetes in Canada: Parts of the story

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Wednesday, 04 January 2012
in CHNET-Works!

Shortly before this past Christmas, with minimal publicity, the Public Health Agency of Canada released a valuable collection of facts and figures on Diabetes in Canada. It points out (for instance) that in the decade after 1998/99, the prevalence of diabetes among Canadians increased by 70 percent (to 2.4 million), with a predicted increase in prevalence to 3.7 million by 2018/19. Further, "although only 3.1% of all deaths in Canada were attributed to diabetes in 2007, more than a quarter (29.9% of individuals who died had diabetes in 2008/09. Diabetes itself does not typically lead directly to death, but the complications associated with diabetes do." Thus, prevalence figures substantially understate its overall contribution to the burden of illness borne by Canadians; that contribution includes cardiovascular disease (the most frequent complication), eye disease, kidney disease, increased infection from minor injuries and a variety of other conditions.

Diabetes-posting-pic-1Healthy food choices: not always availableThe report's importance in drawing attention to the magnitude of the diabetes-related burden of illness is beyond question, yet its contribution to understanding that burden from a health equity perspective is limited. For the most part the authors adopt a conventional risk factor approach to the causes of diabetes, starting (predictably and non-controversially) with a description of overweight and obesity, and the contributions of limited physical activity and unhealthy eating. A list of self-reported barriers to physical activity is reproduced, as is a list of factors influencing food choices that includes nutritional knowledge, perceptions of healthy eating, media advertising and "lower socio-economic status and social inequity," which is not further explored.

The report's treatment of socioeconomic gradients is similarly descriptive, confined to gradients among adult Canadians across Canada, stated by income quintile and education level, in self-reported obesity, physical inactivity, inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption, and daily tobacco smoking. Curiously, data on socioeconomic gradients in actual prevalence of diabetes are not presented, although according to Canadian Community Health Survey data prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in the lowest household income group (income less than $15,000) is more than four times as high as in the highest income group (over $80,000). According to the authors of this last study, "individual risk behaviours do not explain a substantial part of the income association," suggesting "that the diabetes burden associated with poor health behaviours should be looked at through the lens of socioeconomic conditions."

Diabetes-map-1Age- and sex-adjusted diabetes prevalence per 100 persons of all ages, Toronto, 2001-02. Source: Booth GL, Creatore MI, Gozdyra P, Glazier RH. Diabetes in Toronto, Chapter 2: Patterns of Diabetes Prevalence, Complications and Risk Factors. Toronto: Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences; 2007. Reproduced by permission.

 

Diabetes-map-2Average annual household income, Toronto, 2000. Source: Creatore MI, Gozdyra P, Booth GL, Ross K, Glazier RH. Diabetes in Toronto, Chapter 3: Socioeconomic Status and Diabetes. Toronto: Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences; 2007. Reproduced by permission.

Finer-grained examinations of how socioeconomic conditions affect the origin, management and prognosis of diabetes can be found in several places. The Toronto diabetes atlas project of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences produced a multi-volume mapping of diabetes prevalence and a range of neighbourhood characteristics; just two of the 140 maps generated by the project are shown here. To oversimplify a complex set of findings, the project found that higher-income neighbourhoods generally had lower prevalence of diabetes. Prevalence was especially high in low-income neighbourhoods outside the downtown core, with high proportions of recent immigrants and members of recent minority groups. These neighbourhoods tended to have lower population densities, poor walkability, limited access to public transit and long distances to stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables (the 'food desert' problem) and other so-called healthy resources like parks. Conversely, high incomes seemed to have a protective effect against diabetes, even in neighbourhoods where adverse outcomes would be expected based on place-related characteristics. "We noted a striking mismatch," the authors concluded, "between areas of Toronto where healthy resources were most needed and where they were located."

Diabetes-posting-pic-2Activity-friendly urban environments like this may be inaccessible to people in low-income neighourhoodsThere is also, as I have pointed out in previous postings, the simple arithmetic impossibility of eating a healthy diet for many people living on low incomes if they are also paying market prices for housing. Indeed, a series of interviews by York University's Dennis Raphael and colleagues (1) with people trying to manage diabetes in Toronto on incomes below Statistics Canada's Low-Income Cutoff (LICO) found food insecurity and inability to afford an adequate diet widespread "even with almost two-thirds [of participants] living in some form of government-assisted housing or shelter." Two recent articles (2,3) by Claudia Chaufan and colleagues similarly explore the interaction of low incomes, limited availability (and high local prices) of healthy food, high transportation costs and other variables like insecure employment in a Latino and immigrant neighbourhood in Northern California, concluding that structural factors limit the relevance of health and lifestyle education interventions – a point that should by now be familiar, but nevertheless merits continued repetition. One interview respondent summed up the range of problems: "You know, it's a full time job to be poor."

Variables like those identified in the Toronto and Northern California studies are not prominent in the PHAC report, beyond brief generic discussion of healthy food choices and of the built environment. New York-based researchers Rodrick and Deborah Wallace have eloquently compared individualized explanations of obesity that focus on imbalance between caloric intake and exercise to "the remark by US President Calvin Coolidge on the eve of the Great Depression that 'unemployment occurs when large numbers of people are out of work' ... and as Raphael pointed out in a holiday posting on his Social Determinants of Health listserv, the word "poverty" appears nowhere in the PHAC report. (I checked; it doesn't.) That report remains useful, yet at the same time shows how very much still needs to be done to integrate social justice and social determinants into the everyday worldview of public health professionals.

 

(1) Raphael D, Daiski I, Pilkington B, Bryant T, Dinca-Panaitescu D, Dinca-Panaitescu S. A toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements and bad politics: the experiences of poor Canadians with Type 2 diabetes. Critical Public Health 2011 [online publication] (full text unfortunately not available for open access).

(2) The Twin Epidemics of Poverty and Diabetes: Understanding Diabetes Disparities in a Low-Income Latino and Immigrant Neighborhood. Journal of Community Health 2011;36:1032-43, (full text unfortunately not available for open access).

(3) Chaufan C, Constantino S, Davis M. 'It's a full time job being poor': understanding barriers to diabetes prevention in immigrant communities in the USA. Critical Public Health 2011 [online publication] (full text unfortunately not available for open access).

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