By Martha Traverso-Yepez
During the 8th Global Conference of Health Promotion in Helsinki this past June, Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization (WHO), made a strong appeal for the global community to acknowledge large corporations’ interests in luring people into unhealthy lifestyles: “Instead of diseases vanishing as living conditions improve, socio-
economic progress is actually creating the conditions that favour the rise of non-communicable diseases.”
She described sophisticated marketing strategies from the food, soda pop, alcohol and tobacco industries, including lobbying, funding research, as well as giving gifts, grants and contributions to all kinds of worthy causes. These marketing techniques are aimed to present themselves in the public eye as philanthropic, respectable citizens. She also argues how these companies initiate lawsuits and litigations whenever governments try to introduce measures to protect the health of the population.
What can be done?
In counteracting this trend, the argument of further educating citizens to make informed decisions usually comes to the fore. However, perceiving the increasing number of health problems in developed countries where educational standards have been radically improved, we immediately think that something is not working with this approach. However, David Orr in his book “Earth in Moind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect” offers a clue. He emphasizes that one of the main problems of our educational system is its acute focus on competition, technology and the “production of things that are countable,” while little emphasis is given to things that are harder to measure, such as “well-loved children, good cities, healthy forests, stable climate, healthy rural communities, sustainable family farms and diversity of all sorts.”
He argues that it is not simply a matter of education per se, but that a specific kind of education is necessary. It is an education based on environmental and ecological values, involving the understanding of interdependencies and relationships among human beings and between them and their physical and social environments. He claims there is dire need of an educational culture that encourages a holistic, responsible approach towards people’s well-being, as well as esthetic and spiritual sensitivity through values of generosity, gentleness, caring and compassion towards ourselves and towards everything that surrounds us. The question is, who is likely to take action, making the links between an educational culture founded on values and the health of the population?
Fortunately, there is a public health movement occurring, both in Canada and elsewhere, emphasizing that health is not something to be looked at exclusively through the doctor’s office, instead it is everybody’s responsibility. Medical institutions and town hall forums, like the recent one in St. John’s, are talking about the social determinants of health. The Canadian Medical Association has just released their report “Health Care in Canada: What Makes Us Sick,” on the town hall consultations developed this year. The report ratifies that health starts in our families through positive early experiences in childhood and healthy public policies to guarantee quality early care and education. It is produced in our schools, playgrounds and parks, where positive development is a priority and every child has the opportunity to develop their potential, no matter what their family background is. It is dependent on the current economy, where jobs and living wages should be guaranteed, as well as positive work environments which allow creativity and sense of control. Finally, health is framed in all our social and physical environments, where there is awareness about the close relationship between positive, nurturing spaces and citizens’ healthy choices and lifestyles.
Consequently, in addition to the government enforcing a “health in all policy” approach, every citizen should adopt a leadership role in enhancing environments that generate well-being, be it in our families, in our schools, in our jobs, and in our institutional spaces, including the political ones. Governments are not alone; every one of us is co-responsible for the kind of society that it is being created and re-created through our actions and practices.
Martha Traverso-Yepez is a faculty member at the division of community health and humanities at MUN