Public Health Policy Needs to Address Social Practices

A new U.K. study suggests a shift in public policy is needed to address “lifestyle diseases,” the major cause of death and disability.

Dr. Stanley Blue, a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Manchester, claims public health practitioners should pay more attention to efforts that can break social habits and practices, rather than focusing on individual behavior.

For decades, public health officials have worked to educate individuals on the way certain behaviors, be it eating unhealthy food or a lack of exercise can cause bad health. The new approach is geared toward understanding that social factors play a dominant role in choosing certain behaviors.

The study is published in the journal Critical Public Health.

Study authors include Blue, Professor Elizabeth Shove of Lancaster University, Professor Mike Kelly of the Centre of Public Health at the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), and Chris Carmona, public health analyst at NICE.

The authors say new ideas are needed to tackle non-communicable or “lifestyle” diseases such as heart disease, cancer, asthma, and diabetes.

They explain how some social practices reinforce each other, such as getting a take-out dinner and watching TV on a Friday night, whereas others such as drinking a bottle of wine at home or going to the gym compete for time in our busy days.

Researchers explain that public health official have learned from the success of smoking bans that have decoupled the relationship between going out for a meal or a drink and having a cigarette.

Similarly, many believe the removal of smoking areas in schools has led to the elimination of sites that often encouraged smoking as a means to be socially accepted.

Researchers believe policy based on social practices can result in better outcomes than traditional methods which rely on persuading people to make the “right” decision by going to the gym or eating right and which treat such decisions as matters of personal choice.

Blue said, “Smoking, exercise, and eating are fundamentally social practices, therefore we need to re-shape what is deemed socially acceptable and normal in order to change them.

“Current public health policy is dominated by the presumption that individuals are capable of making ‘better’ choices for themselves on the basis of information given to them by the government or other agencies. This does not account for the fact that practices like those of smoking and eating have histories of their own.

“Trying to get individuals to stop smoking or eat healthily overlooks the fact that these are fundamentally social practices. Public health policy will have to find the courage to break away from its traditional mold if it is to stand a chance of confronting the grim reaper of lifestyle diseases.”

Source: University of Manchester/EurekAlert


No smoking sign in a restaurant photo by shutterstock.