Kate Sanger, Communications Manager at RSPH, explores the role of individuals, organisations, governments and public health professionals in taking responsibility for health.

It is well documented that current global trends of ill health point to the prevalence of non communicable diseases and that the need to tackle issues such as obesity, smoking and alcohol misuse is becoming ever more urgent. However we are increasingly being faced with a situation where mention of new or tough interventions results in a heated debate surrounding individual responsibility and a divide in public opinion.

One case in point is the announcement in the CMO’s report that a sugar tax is being considered to tackle the current situation where ‘overweight is considered normal’. As usual there was a surge in debates surrounding individual need vs want, individual want vs population need and individual vs government or organisational responsibility. Irrespective of opinion, one fact remains: we need to do something and take responsibility to address the growing health problems of the population.

For an individual to take responsibility for their health, they need to have the motivation to do so, have choices available to them and have the knowledge to make informed choices. In the case of a growing number of public health issues, including smoking and wearing seatbelts, this soft approach has not worked. Significant improvements were only documented after the introduction of legislative action whereby a mixture of education and legislation worked to tackle huge public health issues.

Regardless of results, government intervention is not a popular solution and proposals often results in an uproar surrounding the ‘nanny state’. Introducing a sugar tax has had a similar reception. The obesity crisis poses as big a threat to the public’s health as smoking. There has been a huge impact on the health of children who are deemed to be too young to make their own responsible decisions and it puts strain on the healthcare system which impacts the population as a whole. If a nudge approach is not working and obesity levels are rising, surely a harder approach is needed?

While individuals ultimately have control over their own health and the Government responsibility for the health of the population, when discussing responsibility we must not forget the role of organisations. In particular manufacturers, advertisers and suppliers who are responsible for developing and marketing products such as soft drinks and tobacco which can have extremely negative health impacts.

Choice and individual choice is something we must strongly protect. However once a situation is reached in which choices are affecting the health of the population, our healthcare system, our economy and risk teaching unhealthy  behaviours to young children, it is evident that we need to do something more than a soft "nudge approach".

As public health professionals we are often in the middle. We see the long term health picture. We work to educate and inform. We advise and develop legislation. We work with, understand and often empathise with public opinion. We also work with industries and corporate organisations. It is our responsibility to utilise our networks and connections, educating and persuading these different sectors to step up and take responsibility for their part in the public's health.

We must work to ensure there is understanding surrounding the reasons for and evidence behind legislative measures. We must encourage individuals, organisations and governments to work together and with us to tackle health inequalities and provide environments in which individuals are able to make choices which are healthy for themselves and that of future generations.