The Lisbon Treaty has opened the way for a more active EU involvement in health issues. It offers the Union more leeway in the fight against health epidemics, including tobacco, alcohol abuse and obesity. The principal responsibility for health remains, of course, with individual member States, most which would not appreciate the EU intervening in matters of health care, health insurance, let alone resource allocation.
Respectful of the Treaty limitations the Commission has submitted in November 2011 a comprehensive public health action plan for 2014-20, with a “price tag” of€ 446 million.
Whatever the division of competences between the Union and member States, all EU governments will be confronted with huge health challenges in the coming decades.
The European population will keep ageing, while the active population will decline substantially. These profound demographic changes will put rising strains on the financial sustainability of the health systems. Being confronted with rising expenditures for old age pensions and stagnant tax revenues State budgets will find it difficult to help out.
Life-long health prevention must therefore become the buzzword. As older populations generate higher health costs. it is crucial to enable ageing take place in optimal health. To that end, society has to invest in early prevention against obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking, the three main causes of high blood pressure, cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Their chronic treatment causes high costs, which an ageing European society will find difficult to afford.
What action could be taken to improve the state of health of European citizens?
Citizens need to abstain from “unhealthy” life styles. That requires better awareness of related health risks, appropriate incentives and deterrents.
EU member States should make tobacco and alcohol more expensive and raise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, in application of the principle “polluter pays”. Basic health and physical education should be mandatory in all schools. Together with more TV and radio campaigns it may help reduce the risk of obesity, the latest health scourge caused by our life-style.All this will require a long-term comprehensive approach, with medical doctors, nutritionists, food companies, teachers, journalists working hand in hand. It is not possible to legislate good health! “Ownership” also applies to health.Each citizen should know and internalise that the daily energy input must not exceed the output.
The EU can play a supporting role to civil society and help in the transmission of best practices to member States. The € 70 million annual budget that the Commission has programmed until 2020 should be more than sufficient to these ends.
Author : Eberhard Rhein