Why being part of the European Union is good for our health

First published on the Euroblog 

There are shocking differences in the number of years Londoners can expect to live, depending on their post code. A recent Office of National Statistics report outlines that men in the London borough of Richmond can look forward to 70 years of a healthy life compared with just 60 years in my borough in Barking and Dagenham.
That means that almost a year is lost for every stop on the district line from Richmond to Barking for residents living in East London. This demonstrates that there is a lot more work that needs to be done to tackle health inequalities, not just in London but right across the country. This pattern is echoed across Europe. Those who live in richer areas make greater use of health services, particularly specialised services, even if in theory they are open to all.
The challenges that we face in London in relation to health are also problems that face Europe as a whole. In order to tackle these challenges head on, we need to work together with the member states so that we can find solutions to the common problems we face and reduce health inequalities all across Europe, as well as create a more cohesive approach to developing policy to address these. The free movement of people, for example, is one obvious way being part of the EU benefits the healthcare sector in the UK. The ability to recruit right across Europe and help deal with healthcare staff shortages has really brought benefits.
But the benefits of EU-wide co-operation can go further. Just as there is a gap in life expectancy between different London boroughs, there are also gaps in life expectancy between member states which currently stands at 11.8 years. A European Commission report outlines that life expectancy is lower in people with lower levels of education and income. This is why it is so important to push for initiatives such as the European-wide youth jobs guarantee to be implemented across all members’ states as this will contribute to reducing health inequalities. If people are working on a living wage, it will reduce their exposure to poverty, which is intrinsically linked to health outcomes. Environment, employment and housing conditions also affect health, so we see the health agenda is tied to so many other fundamental areas that we also need to improve access to. This can be done by working towards the Europe 2020 strategy, which aims to deliver growth, employment, productivity and social cohesion, all of which will contribute substantially to creating a more equitable distribution of health.
Now that local authorities in the UK have control over public health spending, they can use this as a real opportunity to invest in important areas particularly promoting preventative measures, which traditionally have only represented small parts of budgets to really help drive down the inequalities in health. We have access to the European social fund, which can be used for health promotion activities and training for health inequalities, indeed the UK as well as Estonia and Italy have already used it for this purpose.
At the moment the health scrutiny committee I chair on Barking and Dagenham council, is conducting an in depth review into mental health and whether the government changes to benefits are having an impact on it. The economic crisis could have an impact on mental health and wellbeing and from our findings so far, there has been some anecdotal evidence of an increase in anxiety relating to the various changes the government has made over the past few months. The European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being, which aims to reduce health inequalities in this area by de-stigmatising mental health issues, provide better services and promote social inclusion, can be used in our recommendations for how we address mental health in our borough. European wide action on mental health issues is important as again, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more vulnerable to mental health problems.
Previously our committee conducted an in depth review into the prevalence of smoking and we found out that our borough has the highest level of smoking in adults in London. Smoking rates across Europe vary widely also, again related to lower levels of income and educational attainment. Our borough is a poor one and we have the lowest level of people attending university in London, so we see clearly how these findings relate to us. We have seen the benefits that being part of Europe can provide in terms of public health in this area. European regulations to make tobacco products less attractive and promoting smoke free environments are good practices that can help us to reduce the prevalence of smoking in our borough.
So a lot has been done, but there is still a lot to do and we need to work together locally, nationally and at the European level to really tackle health inequalities between social groups, rich and poor, for those with a degree and without, to make a real difference in the lives of all European citizens from now, until 2020 and beyond.
Sanchia Alasia, is a Labour Councillor for Barking and Dagenham and Labour Party candidate for the European elections in 2014 in the London region.