When does public health intervention work?

May 5, 2013

This week, “Take Care” explores the issue of government intervention into public health – something that often causes controversy.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Tracy Fox.

Public policy analyst Tracy Fox realizes this. “Take Care” interviews Fox, who is the president of Food, Nutrition and Policy Consultants. She has advised both the federal government and the private sector on federal nutrition policy.

Credit Kevin T. Houle / Flickr

One of the most recent and publicized examples of occurred when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed to ban soft drinks that are 16 ounces or over in restaurants. While many saw this  as too much government intervention, Fox sees potential in the proposal, especially since the New York City health commissioner reports that over 60 percent of the city’s adults are overweight or obese, while roughly one-eight of them are diabetic.

“The healthcare costs in this country are tipping close to $150 billion a year, and a lot of that comes through public funding, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to take a look at ways to approach this, and I think we’re going to have to think outside of the box,” she said.

While Bloomberg’s proposal was struck down by a New York City judge in March, Bloomberg is appealing the ruling. Even if the appeal isn’t successful, Fox sees the controversy that arose from the proposal as very beneficial as it has allowed for a serious discussion of the issue of public health to occur.

“I, for one, am for really opening up this debate and making it be something that is looked at as a very serious health issue. And I know it’s easy to make light of putting a cap on the amount of beverages, but I think it has caused a more serious level to the conversation that is needed,” she said.

Fox cites other municipalities that have had government intervene in the name of public health, and have done it successfully. For example, the state board of education of Mississippi has set strong standards for school lunches that have limited the amount of junk food available to students. She says that Philadelphia has started an initiative that has gotten healthy retail outlets in locations where there is little access to healthy food.

“In those places, we are seeing decreases of obesity rates among children,” she said.

Fox says it’s easier for public officials to intervene in the name of protecting the health of a child, versus limiting the choices of adults..  

“It is a little bit easier to protect children. They really do deserve the best of the best through the growing years, so I do think it is a little harder sell for adults,” she said.

While the private sector is often blamed for opposing public health initiatives brought about by government, Fox has noticed a growing trend of private sector companies starting to act in the name of public health.

“I think it’s a combination of recognizing that we do have an epidemic and that everyone has a role to play - it’s not just government, it’s not just industry, it’s not just personal responsibility - it’s all those things,” she said.

And Fox says research shows that the biggest incentive of all – profit – actually is causing some companies to start offering healthier options.

“Food and beverage companies that have a higher percentage of products that would be considered better for you or healthier products, they tend to perform better financially. So, I think that the bottom line is that when your bottom line is benefiting, we will see companies stepping up to the plate.