Ed Note: Today, we’re happy to welcome Jenn Lau to the blog. More information about Jenn can be found at the bottom of this post.
The process of adjusting your diet and increasing physical activity can be likened to the broader conquests of public health: they both require commitment, tenacity, and generally, ample time. As much as I wish it would, a week of powerlifting doesn’t result in significant changes in body fat percentage. Comparatively, a soda tax will not be the cure-all to childhood obesity that is sweeping the developed world.
There are no singular solutions to complex issues. Public health is full of multi-layered challenges that must be addressed incrementally. These strides require the collective efforts of people like you, me, and others who are interested in the wellbeing of the population.
Public health shares an arena with policy makers and industry; objectives need to be defined and cognizant of bureaucratic processes. We are not able to abolish processed foods or sugar-sweetened drinks, nor would I be in favour of such a notion, despite the benefits this might have on population-level health outcomes. This doesn’t mean that our efforts are futile; change does happen when we actively reach out to address problems.
Industry and public health often face off on issues of population health. Public health often cowers when faced with the dominating presence of large companies with seemingly infinite marketing budgets. The change may be small and the road to victory long – but it is achievable, and it aggregates.
One example that illustrates the perseverance of public health is when Québec’s Coalition on Weight-Related Problems (Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids) filed complaints against Coca Cola for naming a water park “Fanta Zone”, after one of their soft drinks. The Consumer Protection Act in Québec protects against the direct marketing of goods and services to children under the age of 13. Coca Cola not only violated provincial law, but failed to abide by their own advertising standards of “responsible marketing”. Eventually, in October 2015, Coca Cola was fined $28,000. “Fanta Zone” has since been renamed “Aqua Zone”. Australia’s Obesity Policy Coalition brought similar marketing complaints against Coca Cola in July 2015, resulting in the removal of a television ad and app on iTunes.
The movement towards restricting the use of flavoured tobacco products in several provinces, including Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Ontario, is another example of how policy makers and public health advocates can, and do, work together to propel the population towards improved health. By selling a more palatable product, the tobacco industry has successfully capitalized on the curiosity of adolescents in trying tobacco. A study of 31,396 Canadian high school students reported that 25% have tried flavoured tobacco, corroborating similar findings in American adolescents, in which the overwhelming majority of youth who self-reported using tobacco products started with flavoured tobacco.
In Ontario, the ban of flavoured tobacco products is part of the Bill 45, Making Healthier Choices Act, which includes legislation to govern transparency in caloric information and e-cigarette usage. By increasing accessibility to much-needed nutritional information, prohibiting flavoured tobacco sales, and regulating the sale of e-cigarettes, the Making Healthier Choices Act influences individual behaviour change that is integral for improvements in population health. As Barbara Stead-Coyle of the Canadian Cancer Society put it, “The little guy can win and we won’t back down.”
The work done for public health as organizations and as individuals will not be in vain if we are assertive in our quest for change. Weighty, disruptive change rarely happens overnight. Improvement in any system is a slow and iterative process, but if we can learn from our failures and optimize our achievements, I’d argue that a small change in a large population leaves a significant impact. Sure, small wins against Coca Cola may not do much to ward off childhood obesity, but they are small steps towards the removal of deceptive marketing to a vulnerable population. Holding industry accountable is a large win in itself. Pinpoint the problem you want to address and work out the steps to a solution. We all have water parks to rename!
Jenn completed her undergraduate degree in Health Studies, minoring in Human Nutrition at the University of Waterloo. She is passionate about knowledge translation and nutritional epidemiology, and currently works in health communications. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/laujenn