April 19, 2018
Year golden number

Our New Year’s Wish List

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

If you missed the good news a few months ago, California joined West Virginia and Mississippi in requiring nearly all schoolchildren to get vaccinated against infectious diseases like measles, ending exemptions that many parents claimed for religious or personal reasons. (The only valid exemptions now are for medical reasons and for home-schooled children.) This mandatory vaccination law protects not only the children immunized but also the community at large. Other commendable public health policies are also coming from California, including a bill that requires health warnings on ads for sugary sodas in San Francisco; this follows Berkeley’s soda tax that was passed in 2014. And on the other side of the country, New York City recently enacted the nation's first law requiring restaurant menus to include warning labels on very salty foods.

But such local policies are just the tip of the iceberg in what we, as a nation, could be doing to better safeguard people’s health. Here’s a brief rundown of four public health measures recently put into place in other countries that we should urge our lawmakers to adopt.

A ban on tanning salons

Country that adopted it: Australia.

Why we need it: To reduce the incidence of skin cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes ultraviolet-emitting tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans”—the highest cancer risk category, on par with cigarettes and asbestos. While the FDA has strengthened oversight of such devices in the U.S. and now requires more warnings, an outright ban or even just greater restrictions would surely be opposed by the multi-billion-dollar tanning industry here.

A ban on TV food ads aimed at children under 13

Country that adopted it: The Netherlands.

Why we need it: To help decrease childhood obesity. In the U.S., where children are typically exposed to more than six food ads an hour on television, the food industry has adopted voluntary self-regulation whereby companies set their own nutrition standards for foods they advertise. That apparently isn’t helping much, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in August 2015. It found little change in the nutritional quality of foods advertised to kids since self-regulation began.

Weight minimums for models

Country that adopted it: France.

Why we need it: To stop idealization of the super-thin body. Being severely underweight is neither normal nor healthy, and the desire to look like a fashion model can lead to poor body image and eating disorders, especially in young women. The new French law mandates that models have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18 (that’s at least 126 pounds for a 5'10" model, which is still quite a lenient minimum). Modeling agents who violate this law face large fines and possible jail time.

Graphic health warnings on cigarette packs

Countries that have adopted them: More than 73 countries and jurisdictions to date, with the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Namibia among the latest adopters.

Why we need them: To discourage smoking. The labels display images of diseased hearts and lungs, people with gangrene and on ventilators, premature babies, decaying teeth, tracheotomy holes, and other hard-to-ignore images of the toll that cigarettes take on health (you can see examples by country on the website of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids). A picture tells a thousand words. Glaringly missing among the countries participating in the initiative is the U.S. A proposal by the FDA to require graphic warnings on cigarette packs here went up in smoke in 2013 when tobacco companies challenged it, citing “freedom of speech”—and won.

Bottom line: Some people are opposed to what they call “nanny-state” regulations, but such policies are a small price to pay to keep us healthier overall and save lives. We already have many laws in place—including mandatory seat belt use, speed limits, restriction of alcohol to minors, and food labels—that have negligible effects on our “freedom” but huge effects on public health.