Good public policy heals hearts — and the divide

Today is Christmas. And in the spirit of service and goodwill toward men, here’s a little something to hang your hopes on…

According to researchers, we could slash heart disease rates in the U.S. — and save nearly a quarter million lives over the next 15 years — simply by putting forth the right public health policies.

Whether our elected and appointed officials have any intention of seeing this through is a whole different story. (About which I am decidedly less optimistic.) Still, the mere prospect of the U.S. government actually doing something to help safeguard the health of its population is thrilling to me.

How many times have I had to say, write, or be ridiculed for even suggesting we need government intervention in the midst of what is probably one of the worst health care crises of all time? Especially considering how vastly ahead of us other countries are in this department, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Perhaps I should explain where I’m coming from here, lest anyone mistake my opinions for “socialism.” In addition to my medical degree, I also have a Master’s degree in public health.  That education taught me to look at how health policies affect the entire population — not just the individual.

And quite frankly, if a large portion of these affected individuals would just practice some willpower and self-control, then we wouldn’t have much of a need for public intervention. But clearly, many Americans can’t — at least, not where food is concerned. A lot of people don’t give a second thought as to what they put into their bodies. And our government’s current policies are doing absolutely nothing to help matters.

So this is one case where some well-crafted changes could prove life-saving. I’m talking about lowering the cost of fresh produce. Offering nutrition support to lower income families. Launching health-focused media campaigns. And of course, taxing sugary drinks.

According to one recent study, the potential impact — on heart disease prevention and on the socioeconomic divide in health outcomes, in particular — would be epic.

Now, I don’t have to remind you that disparities exist when it comes to diet and heart disease—and they divide the population solidly along social and economic lines. (I brought up one new example of this just a couple of weeks ago.) But in my opinion, the real question is whether new policies can correct these injustices? And if so, which ones will make the most impact?

This study used a computer model to answer that question, by assessing the potential impact that any one of the policies I mentioned above might have on heart disease rates through 2030.

According to this model, at least, the most beneficial policy would be a ten percent subsidy on fresh fruits and vegetables. It would save more than 150,000 lives over the next 15 years. (And it would certainly be an improvement over the status quo, where farmers only get breaks for growing junk like soy, corn, and wheat.)

A year-long media campaign could potentially save over 25,000 lives. (Although I have my doubts about this — media campaigns in this field are practically useless, since the only people usually listening are the ones who are health conscious to begin with.)

Meanwhile, a 30-percent subsidy for food stamps and a 10-percent soda tax would save 35,100 lives and 31,000 lives, respectively.

Altogether, it’s clear what needs to be done here. And it speaks to the very problem I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the years: Organic, fresh, healthful foods simply aren’t as accessible as chemical-laden, processed, unhealthy garbage.

Access and cost are prohibitive points of entry to health in this county. And it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, this study estimates that a food stamp subsidy would shrink the socioeconomic gap between heart disease rates by eight percent.

Even the smallest step toward correcting our country’s healthcare disparities would be something to celebrate. Because sadly, in America, Marie Antoinette’s infamous suggestion to “let them eat cake” takes on a whole new significance — betraying a system that caters to the rich while leaving the poor to die, just the same.

We subsidize sugar — and look where that’s gotten us. Let’s start subsidizing vegetables and see how much healthier we can all become.