When it comes to health risks, there is a disconnect between knowledge and behaviour. For example, the negative effects of smoking, alcohol consumption and illicit drug use are well-known, but this does not stop millions of people from using these substances. When the impact on health is so clear and behaviour still doesn’t change, what happens when the link between cause and effect is less obvious? Public health measures are the policy tool that fills this gap. In relation to health risks, policies that disincentivize at both the supply and demand side can be effective at modifying harmful health behaviours in order to improve the quality and length of life.
However, the effectiveness of any health policy depends on the context. Factors such as the health risk targeted, the country, time and sociopolitical context can impact the overall efficacy of the policy. Thus, some policies have been more effective than others. For example, health taxes on tobacco products and educational campaigns have achieved impressive reductions in tobacco use, albeit not to the levels desired by most policymakers. One can also look at the history of perhaps the oldest health tax: alcohol. This tax has attempted to account for the negative impacts of alcohol use for more than two millennia. Although its consumption still remains a significant health threat, policies targeting its health impacts are nonetheless mitigating its health burden.
However, I want to focus on another example. Air pollution is a recognised health threat. Although anthropogenic activities are the largest contributor to air pollution, governments around the world have largely failed to enact policies to improve air quality. Specifically, industrial processes, residential heating systems, transportation and agriculture are associated with unsustainable fossil fuel production and use.
Policies targeting the adverse effects of fossil fuels have largely focused on their environmental impacts and contributions to the climate crisis. However, evidence shows that this solely environmental approach may be ineffective (read more here), thus we need innovative solutions that can effectively address this pressing issue. UHF is a leading contributor to this innovative policy research: we’re advocating for policies that support the reduction of fossil fuel use by framing these measures as health issues. Given that fossil fuel production and use are such major causes of air pollution — which in turn increases morbidity and mortality — the rationale for treating these policies as health initiatives is clear from a public health perspective. If we do not recognize that the reduction of fossil fuels is also a health issue, environmental policies will not be able to count the true cost of pollution.
The good news is that certain case studies suggest that this approach can be very beneficial for improving both population and planetary health, making it a “win-win” strategy. Compared to environmental threats, people tend to perceive health threats with a heightened sense of urgency. Unfortunately, obstacles to this reframing remain: a lack of political will and the need for further scientific research. Addressing these barriers will ensure that policymakers can address the issues quickly and effectively.