Unhealthy lifestyles here to stay, in spite of costly campaigns

Government warnings about bad diet, drugs, drink and lack of exercise don't save lives, warn experts

Nina Lakhani
Sunday 07 December 2008 01:00 GMT

Drink, drugs, cigarettes and fatty foods will remain part of the British lifestyle until the Government improves its efforts to persuade us to give them up, according to a new report.

The King's Fund will say this week that Government campaigns aimed at tackling our 21st-century health epidemics are old-fashioned and disjointed. As a result, ministers waste millions of pounds on ineffective advertising campaigns and fail to use the most effective weapons in the battle against obesity and substance abuse.

The think tank cites as a recent example the latest £1m ad campaign to stop young people using cocaine.

The Kicking Bad Habits report will say tomorrow that insufficient NHS workers have skills in social marketing and data analysis. GPs and nurses, meanwhile, do not see health promotion as part of their jobs.

Tammy Boyce, from the King's Fund, said: "The obesity epidemic is bad; harmful drinking is getting worse; smoking is still the biggest cause of premature death in the UK: we need effective solutions now. We do need more research, but there is already a lot of great practice going on out there which is not being shared. It makes me want to pull my hair out.

"We need to move away from short-term, politically motivated initiatives such as the 'nudging people' idea, which are not based on any good evidence and don't help people make long-term behaviour changes. There needs to be a huge culture overhaul at every level of the NHS so public health becomes everyone's priority."

Bad habits cost the NHS in England at least £6bn a year as rates of heart disease, diabetes and liver disease continue to grow. Smoking, alcohol misuse, poor diet and lack of exercise kill thousands every year.

Recent government policy has placed greater emphasis on people taking more responsibility for adopting healthier lifestyles. The Government spent £50m on information adverts such as the "five a day" campaign last year, but research shows that information alone does little to change people's behaviour.

Experts say the NHS must learn from the commercial sector, which for years has been successfully marketing things that are bad for us. Professor Gerard Hastings, director of the Social Marketing Institute at Stirling University, said: "It makes absolute sense to look at how industry goes about its business and see which ideas and techniques are transferable. Health promotion is an art as well as a science; we need to get inside people's hearts as well as their heads."

Recent work has demonstrated the value of practical help rather than government ad campaigns.

Annie Smith, 13, who lives near Bristol, began piling on weight about three years ago. In March, she topped 16 stone and her BMI was a dangerous 37. A practice nurse finally referred her to Mend, an approved healthy living programme for obese children. She has since lost more than a stone.

Her mother, Jane, said: "In the past, our GP had referred Annie to see a dietician but this didn't help. All she did was tell me to lay down the law and stop letting Annie eat unhealthy food. But it became a battle of wills.

"Since we've been to Mend she is so much happier and more confident. We are all eating more healthily and her dad and I have lost weight as well. We should have been told about Mend a long time ago."

Dawn Primarolo, the minister for public health, said: "Our public health campaigns are fully researched, innovative and deliver real results. They are built to last and made to inspire change."

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