Trevor Hancock: Hoping for progress on health-related issues

Well, world peace, of course. And to be rid of The Donald. But while with any luck the latter is possible, and the former is devoutly to be wished for, I would settle for some healthy actions closer to home. Here are a few of the major population and public health issues where I hope we might see some progress in 2018.

The most profound challenge to our health facing us in the 21st century is the accelerating global ecological crisis we are causing, including climate change; depletion of fisheries, forests and food lands; ocean acidification; pollution and species extinction.

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So my wish for 2018 is that we wake up and start to face the future. Because while this is not going to have a great impact in 2018, it is going to have a big impact on our children and grandchildren, and on many vulnerable populations around the world. As the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health bluntly put it: “We have mortgaged the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.”

One vital task for our descendants, regardless of what The Donald might think, is to begin to get off fossil fuels, especially coal and — here in Canada — the Alberta oilsands as well. There is a growing movement to divest from fossil fuels, just as was done for tobacco and apartheid-era South Africa. Interestingly, this may in fact be not only ethically advisable, but fiscally necessary.

Bevis Longstreth, a securities lawyer twice appointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission in the U.S., wrote last year: “It is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil-fuel companies will be ruled negligence,” because “the foreseeable rewards are not likely to be equal to the foreseeable risks.”

If that is the case, pension funds and others have a duty to future pensioners to safeguard their investments by getting out of fossil fuels.

On the topic of making the next generation less healthy, a 2014 Statistics Canada report noted: “Obesity has become one of the world’s greatest health concerns and threatens to undo gains made in life expectancy during the 20th century.”

So I look forward to several key healthy-food policies that I hope and expect will be coming from the federal government in 2018, in the form of a healthy-eating strategy.

First, the draft of the new Canada Food Guide is focused more strongly on a plant-based diet, limited intake of processed or prepared foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fats, and avoidance of processed or prepared beverages high in sugars (including 100 per cent fruit juice). A low-meat diet is not only good for our health, it is good for the planet, as meat production — especially beef — is energy-intensive and a major source of greenhouse gases.

Second, there is a proposal for new regulations for front-of-pack warning labels for packaged foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar that would be much easier for consumers to understand. Third, there is a strong push for Canada to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children. You can help by supporting the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition and writing to your MP. Go to stopmarketingtokids.ca for more information.

None of these changes are foregone conclusions and, as you can imagine, the junk-food and fast-food industries and the pop, juice and soda industries are pushing back hard. The last thing they want is for their customers to know in clear and simple language how unhealthy their food is, and to be limited in their marketing, as was done for tobacco. But I wonder whether the guidance on prudent investing might also apply here — maybe wise investors should be divesting from these industries too, given the harm they do.

My final health wish for 2018 concerns another fundamental requirement for good health: housing. If housing is a human right, and if “everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated, then we need the Liberal housing strategy to get going now, not in April 2020, as has been announced. It would make a happier, healthier New Year for thousands of people.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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