A whole of society approach to health

Since, as we've shown, social processes play a large part in creating health and wellbeing, it is important to strengthen the positive social mechanisms across all sectors of society. The COVID-19 pandemic vividly illustrated that the response was most effective when political parties, scientists, media, communities, business organisations and neighbours worked together to minimise risk and harm.

Another practical approach to creating a social context that supports health is to ensure that healthy choices become the easy and affordable choices. Reducing taxes on foods like fruits and vegetables, and increasing taxes on unhealthy foods is one approach. Providing options that encourage healthy food choices in schools and workplaces, and reducing unhealthy options is another.

A good example of a whole of society approach to health is the intervention to decrease youth drinking in Iceland.

Why youth drinking plummeted in Iceland

Key parts of the strategy involved using taxes to make alcohol more expensive and therefore less accessible for youth, and 1% of the tax revenue from alcohol was reserved for alcohol prevention and health promotion programs. In 1998 the prevalence of youth drinking in Iceland was 42%, the highest in Europe, and after a comprehensive intervention it decreased to 5%, the lowest prevalence in Europe. This change happened because there were actions at all levels; the government, municipalities, schools, youth centres, parents and youth themselves all played their part.

The health challenges of the recent past are likely to be different than those we will face in the near future. New challenges include the increases in loneliness, sleep deprivation, vaping, recreational drugs, anti-vaccination movements, and social media addiction, as well as the widespread rise in unemployment and mental health issues following the COVID-19 pandemic, and the near-certainty of future pandemics. There are also social problems associated with traumatic experiences following forced migration and displacement due to major conflicts, and increasingly to global warming, which can create substantial stress for both the displaced and the receiving communities. Failure to deal effectively with the new challenges that are developing in today's complex and globalised world can have profound negative consequences. Responding to such challenges with compassion and a whole of society approach may be the most effective way to improve population wellbeing.

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