EU citizens need health and well-being as a policy priority, stakeholders say

Healthy, happy citizens are the biggest asset any country can have, chief executive of Re-Imagine Europa (RIE) Erika Widegren told EURACTIV.com. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Stakeholders from different policy areas have come together to set broader, multi-sectorial priorities for health and well-being but also to make the entire sector an EU priority in the next legislative term, because it could help foster a “new and stronger economic model” for Europe.

Ahead of the European election in May, Europe is facing a vibrant reflection period over the broadening of the range of the policies that could affect health and human well-being.

The old-fashioned way to look at the health investments and policymaking no longer seems enough to the EU citizens, as more than 70% of them have asked for more EU actions in this sector, according to a Eurobarometer survey.

Healthy, happy citizens are the biggest asset any country can have,  Erika Widegren, the chief executive of Re-Imagine Europa (RIE) advocacy, told EURACTIV.com.

“Today, however, increasing numbers of people suffering from mental disorders, depression, obesity, substance abuse, loneliness, seem to indicate that well-being is not a priority,” she added.

Founded by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Re-imagine Europa describes itself as a European incubator for political ideas, recently becoming also one of the inspirators of a new multi-stakeholders platform that tries to implement cross-sectoral policies in health decision making.

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Another intersectoral initiative is ‘All Policies for a Healthy Europe’ (AP4HE), which wants to ensure that citizens’ health and well-being are a core priority for Europe and a strategic objective for the European Commission, Parliament and Governments.

After the process of drafting a manifesto started in November, the final text of the commitment for a whole different approach to health issues will be launched at an event in the European Parliament on 20 March.

“The initiative sees health and well-being as crucial contributors to a new and stronger economic model: one that goes beyond GDP and fiscal rules to target inclusive growth and sustainable development,” said Zeger Vercouteren, vice president  for government affairs at Johnson and Johnson EMEA, one of the corporate sponsors of the civil society platform.

Fight existing gaps

“In a European Union where 86% of deaths are caused by chronic diseases, our approach to health needs to be reimagined,” RIE’s Widegren said.

According to her, the next challenge for the health sector will come from lifestyle choices, infrastructure, mobility, consumer protection, work-life balance and environmental pollution, showing the need for cross-sectoral actions, where the well-being should be at the core of all policies.

The Commission’s last 2018 Health at a Glance report sketched out some significative sources of concern regarding the presence of large disparities across and within member states by socioeconomic status.

For instance, low-income households are five times more likely to report unmet care needs than wealthy households, while people with a low level of education can expect to live less than those with a university degree, the report said.

“There are significant health inequalities based on where in Europe you live, your gender, income and ethnicity. The EU has a vital role to play in supporting the member states to rebalance these challenges,” said Johnson and Johnson’s Vercouteren.

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A significant gap also exists between life expectancy and ‘healthy’ life expectancy in the EU, according to Nikolai Pushkarev, a policy coordinator at another AP4HE platform’s member, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

“It is misleading to focus on life expectancy alone as the main indicator for health and well-being, as the Commission appears to be doing in its reflection paper Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030,” he said.

He added that even when progress is made on reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), longer lives do not necessarily translate into healthy lives, as too often people live longer but are burdened by one or several chronic conditions.

Mental illness and nutrition

Promoting better health and well-being requires a joined-up policy framework that takes into consideration diverse and sometimes different policy areas.

“Take, for example, the issue of mental illness: not only does it ruin lives, but it’s estimated to cost the EU €600bn a year in lost productivity,” Vercouteren said.

Mental health issues cost EU countries more than €600 billion

In many EU countries, mental health is still a taboo. However, the economic impact of psychological disorders is a loss of 4% of GDP and changes in the labour market only aggravate the situation, according to a report by the OECD.

According to the Health at a Glance report, the bulk of costs for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, disorder and alcohol or drug use disorders is indirect: €260 billion is due to lower employment rates of people suffering from mental diseases, while €170 billion is spent on social security programmes.

“Good mental health policy isn’t all about treatment. Most of all, it is about prevention through improving understanding, support and providing the infrastructure that promotes well-being,” Vercouteren said.

Agrifood sector and its interrelation with nutrition and health also show the need for policy coherence from farm to fork, namely through an integrated food policy also capable of addressing health issues

Unhealthy diet, driven by unhealthy food environments, is one of the main risk factors for all deaths and diseases in the EU, explained EPHA’s Nikolai Pushkarev.

“For instance, diets are responsible for nearly 50% of the burden of cardiovascular diseases, Europe’s largest killer, at an estimated cost €102 billion per year,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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