GrogWatch - How influential is public health research

How influential is public health research?

Christian Kerr’s article in the Australian ‘Nanny’s drinking problem’ has caused a stir among people who are campaigning for cultural change on alcohol.

Last week GrogWatch addressed the alcohol and cancer link mentioned in Kerr’s article. This week we look at the wider impact of public health research that he attacked.

How many adults in Australia have changed their behaviour due to the results of health research? Could it be that a majority have decided to stop smoking, or sharing needles; to eat more fish, or more vegetables, and less red meat; to exercise more; to reduce drinking, or use a condom, and wear a seat belt?

Australia has a strong record of improving its citizens’ health, quality of life and life expectancy through health promotion. An exemplary example is the anti-smoking campaign since 1970. By 2010, the male daily smoking rate had fallen from 45% in 1970 to 16%, and the female daily smoking rate from 30% to 14% (AIHW, 2010).

Other successful health campaigns include Slip Slop Slap, Don’t turn your night out into a nightmare and the Grim Reaper campaign that prepared people for the setting up of needle and syringe exchanges and the free distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV–AIDS.

Health promotion can be more subtle than these high profile strategies. Ensuring young people have access to recreation and entertainment that does not involve alcohol or other drugs is an example. Another is the work of preventative health advocates in leading policy changes at global, national and local government levels.

Doing the science to find out the effects of dangerous health behaviours, which underpins this prevention work, is a long task requiring research projects over many years to establish theories, repeat investigations and replicate and verify results. Public health research is funded by the taxpayer because everyone stands to benefit.

This type of research was attacked by Kerr. He complained the University of NSW received taxpayer funded research money to investigate ‘what is influential public health research?’. Yet there is no point to public health research if it isn’t informed by how it can influence people’s lives.

If the assault on research funding for health advocacy encourages governments to stop or reduce those funds, a key aim of public health could be undermined – that is to help people reduce illness and disease by adopting safer behaviours.

It is crucial to ensure politicians of all stripes understand the benefits of public health research. In an election year this is even more important.