Benns’ Belief: What if our health was considered in all policies?

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

We have zoning regulations that reward urban sprawl, which increases consumption of fossil fuels and pollution.

It is virtually beyond argument to say that nothing matters more than our health. No matter our social class, the church pew we sit in, or the party we most want to see take power, it is our health that is the great equalizer. Old or young, rich or poor — nothing much matters if we are not well.

Strange, then, that the idea of “health in all policies” is not really a widespread notion yet. This is a concept that is as literal as can be. For every policy we make — federal, provincial or municipal — we should be considering the impact of each policy on our health. And yet we don’t.

For instance, we have zoning regulations that reward urban sprawl, which increases consumption of fossil fuels and pollution.

One of the great champions in Canada for a health in all policies approach is Dr. Ryan Meili, a family physician who became the leader of Saskatchewan’s NDP in 2018. I got to know Meili prior to his ascension with the NDP and we had several discussions about this approach to policy making.

He pointed out that in countries like Finland, the idea of health in all policies has been influencing public policy for years, with that nation applying it to sectors as diverse as education and finance to housing, transportation and social assistance. 

In Canada, Meili said Quebec was an early health-in-all-policies leader. In 2002, the province passed its Public Health Act, legislation that mandates its provincial departments and agencies not harm the health of Quebecers.

A fundamental part of this approach is to pay attention to the root causes of poor health. These so-called social determinants of health are basically the living and working conditions we experience in our lives. They are much more important than biology or even our behavioural choices, such as diet or how much we exercise.

But many of the social determinants of health are beyond the reach of the health sector. As the Canadian Medical Journal pointed out in 2020, improving population health and health equity will happen best “when we ensure all government departments (my emphasis) and agencies assess how their policies will affect the upstream drivers of health and social conditions — through direct consequences.” They use the example of changes to tax policy that promote affordable housing. Housing scarcity leads to community stress and individual stress.

As the medical journal points out, sustained action on health in all policies would require achieving a culture change within government that would see leaders “rise above their own interests, consider shared goals, and commit to steps for reaching them.” This is perhaps the greatest obstacle of all.

In the meantime, our municipal system, free of political parties, is a great place to start. Our local government should take the time and opportunity to study how health in all policies might be implemented in Kawartha Lakes. Our neighbourhoods — our people — deserve no less.

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