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Should the government make us healthy? York hosts major conference

Posted on 8 September 2016

The University of York will host the Society for Social Medicine’s (SSM) annual conference from 14 – 16 September.

A number of high profile scientific speakers will discuss new research and debate the latest policy interventions designed to improve public health. For the first time, the meeting will also hold a debate, arguing the motion This House supports the Nanny State.

Hosted by York’s Department of Health Sciences, the meeting marks the 60th anniversary of the Society.

Dr Steven Oliver, Senior Lecturer in Population Health at York and conference organiser, said: “The recent government childhood obesity strategy was roundly condemned when published in August 2016. But is this the right approach? Can government actually make a difference to the health of the population? The Society will debate one of the key questions in modern Public Health - how much should the State be involved with the health-related choices of individual citizens?”

Professor Aileen Clarke, SSM President,said: “It is all about regulation, big-versus small-government, freedom and choice - all those intensely important political ideas that sometimes get tidied under the carpet by scientists in order to be “seen to be playing together nicely”.

“Public Health is intensely political, and our 60th anniversary is a fantastic opportunity to reflect and challenge our ideas and possibly even our ideals!”

Professor Simon Capewell, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, supports the motion. He argues: “The Nanny State means safe drinking water; safe planes, trains and roads; regulation of tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and sugar. Without State regulation, the strong would be free to exploit and abuse the weak. The Nanny State is not a luxury; not a naïve socialist aspiration, it is essential for optimal health of everyone on our planet.”

Professor Richard Lilford, from the University of Warwick’s Medical School, challenges that view. He said: “Optimising health is one of a number of moral obligations that decision makers must consider. For too long people in privileged positions have tried to tell others what is good for them. People should not be coerced, except under certain well established conditions. However, they may be ‘nudged’ and I shall consider the philosophical aspects of nudge theory in the debate.” 

Notes to editors:

The Society for Social Medicine

The Society aims to promote the development of scientific knowledge in social medicine. This covers a range of subjects including epidemiology, the medical and health needs of society, the provision and organization of health services and the prevention of disease.

The Society has come a long way from its formation in 1957. The original  44 senior academics interested in promoting understanding of how social factors shaped the health of communities to have now become over 600 leading population health researchers from across the UK and Ireland.

Delegates at this year’s Annual Scientific Meeting to being held 14th–16th September at the University of York will present over 200 studies describing how health varies across populations; what influences those patterns and how ill-health might be prevented.

For further details about the Society: