by | December 18, 2019 | Opinion

Mapping public health policies for healthy living environments – A quick guide to a new EPHA initiative

EPHA has launched a new webpage called “Policies for healthy living environments”, what is it about?

This initiative, currently being piloted, aims to collect and give visibility to promising public health policies across different health areas, and then maps which European countries have implemented these measures.

So it is a policy monitoring tool?

Kind of yes, but with this initiative we try to single out a number of quite concrete and promising policies (mostly regulatory), rather than map more generally which health policies different countries may have implemented.

While the design details of each of the policy measures will matter for their ultimate effectiveness, the collected measures are promising in themselves and ready to be applied in each country.

Why are we doing this?

The most direct reason is to raise awareness about the various health-enabling policy measures out there. Another reason is to support the adoption of these policy options, preferably as a package, because no single measure in itself is a ‘silver bullet’.

A wider reason is to develop a clearer framing about the purpose, role and added value of public health policy in tackling systemic challenges and creating better societies.

 So what role do we see for public health in this?

Public health offers a consistent and transformative approach to tackle key societal challenges, while putting human well-being and the planet’s health, as well as a rights- and equity-based approach at the core of the response.

And it does so by enhancing people’s freedom. For instance, good public health policies help create enabling environments which  make it easier for people to pursue productive and fulfilling lives, free from preventable diseases. They offer the freedom to receive the best possible care, independent of socio-economic conditions. They contribute to protecting the biosphere to avoid the constraints and anxieties imposed by environmental degradation. They also serve to advance social equity.

 This is quite different from what we sometimes hear being said, that public health is about placing restrictions on people?

This is a completely fabricated narrative. One which  does not serve citizens, but commercial interests which  want to maintain their privilege to shape people’s choice environments for their own short-term commercial gains, regardless of the potentially harmful consequences.

Public health policies are not enforced on individuals, but try to reshape living environments to enable everyone to live productive, fulfilling lives within the planet’s boundaries.

 So, is this the reason for emphasising ‘living environments’?

Yes, it reflects the reality that our choices and life chances are fundamentally shaped by the environments we are exposed to and interact with in our every-day lives. Today, many environments – such as socio-economic environments, food and drink environments or urban environments – for many people, are conducive to ill-health, as seen for instance by  the epidemic of non-communicable diseases. They are also pushing us into unsustainable consumption patterns that drive societies across planetary boundaries, endangering our common future.

Nobody aspires towards this, or consciously ‘chooses’ this to happen. This reflects the systemic nature of many problems and the severe limitation of approaches focused on changing people’s behaviours (for instance by providing information only) rather than the root causes of behaviours.

 There are many different environments that shape well-being, but the mapping starts with food environments?

That is right. The food system is at the heart of many of the fundamental challenges facing people and the planet, but is also the key to getting much of it right. There is a renewed focus on food consumption patterns now, because it is clear that improvements in agricultural production methods alone will not be enough. There is also recognition that eating patterns, or diets, are not passive end-points in the food supply chain, but are dynamically shaping the food system and food system outcomes.

For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies that a shift towards diets “featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems” is an important climate mitigation opportunity. It also highlights the central role of public health policies in achieving many food system co-benefits.

The mapping on policies for healthy food environments tries to showcase exactly what types of policies are likely to help reshape food environments so they enable healthy, sustainable choices. But it also indicates some gaps. For instance, there are many good policy recommendations focused on nutrition gathered by the World Health Organization, but these are less explicit on how to achieve environmental co-benefits. The types of food environment policies that can help in the transition towards eating patterns with less and better animal products, which is inevitable for a sustainable food future, clearly needs further elaboration. We hope our mapping will contribute to this process.

Policies for healthy living environments




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