Disclosure: Dr Jenny Hatchard is Research Fellow in Public Health Policy in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath. Jenny’s research, funded by Cancer Research UK, explores how producers of harmful commodities such as alcohol, tobacco and sugary drinks influence public health policy. Jenny has previously worked in sustainable fisheries management research.
I was delighted to be awarded a place at this year’s Communicate. Just like the environmental sector, public health advocates are Navigating Change and the two sectors are closely linked. I frequently long to have the time and space to think about how my environmental and public health research ideas fit together. So thanks for this opportunity to think “aloud”.
Public Health and Change:
Tim Scoones’ opening presentation flagged urbanisation, digitisation and a rising culture of questioning science as three forces for change facing the environmental lobby. These changes are also posing challenges in public health. On urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population have been living in towns and cities since 2007 and the World Health Organization point to safe water, sanitation, waste disposal and injury prevention as key factors for urban health. On digitisation, while the potential for digitised healthcare is being explored, risks that this may increase health inequalities and threaten our privacy are also being identified. On questioning science, the work of my research group on tobacco plain packaging confirmed that the tobacco industry’s 20th century practice of commissioning scientists to combat regulation of their products is ever present in the 21st Century. Most recently, independent US scientists have used the global tobacco giant PMI’s own data to show that their new “heat not burn product” is no safer than smoking.
Links between Public Health and Environment:
The recent diesel emissions scandal has led to research which shows that tens of thousands of premature deaths result from diesel-related air pollution every year. This throws into sharp relief the fundamental overlap between public health and environmental concerns and highlights the need to communicate between these two public interest sectors. At the conference, Russ Moody from Public Health England described the One You campaign’s efforts to break out of public health’s echo chamber in order to communicate more effectively with groups in society that would benefit most from health messages. For One You to be successful in achieving one of its objectives – increased physical activity – clean air would be highly advantageous.
Who else is navigating change?
Reflecting on my own research, the conference made me think about who else is navigating change and how they are going about it. One observation I’ve drawn from my current study of networks across public health is that global tobacco and alcohol companies are using sustainability as a positive investment story. Within many companies’ annual reports, there is a striking emphasis on sustainability, environmental impact, community and social responsibility. At the same time, global accountancy firms are promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, sustainability reporting and best practice. And supposedly public interest foundations are becoming a standard tool in corporations’ social responsibility toolbox. In a world where ethical investments are growing in popularity, this is not a surprising development. However, the tobacco and alcohol sectors are responsible for over 7 million and over 3 million premature deaths respectively worldwide every year. It is important not to lose sight of this in the midst of their tide of apparently “good” news stories about environmental and social responsibility.
Navigating change together:
With this issue held firmly in mind, the conference confirmed for me that there is an opportunity for public health and environmental researchers, advocates and policymakers to help each other navigate the changing corporate world around us. In particular, we need to be sceptical and critical when private interests borrow public interest language and ideas (such as evidence and sustainability). And we must also remember how companies whose products damage health and the environment have questioned and undermined the science base in order to avoid regulation. The fact that industries which threaten health and environment have been shown to work together to achieve this in the past adds an urgency to this agenda and should encourage us to communicate our knowledge of corporate practice beyond our own echo chambers.