Very recent studies investigating the effectiveness of graphic warnings on cigarette packets and the link between genetics, smoking rates and taxation of cigarettes are just two examples of a long history of well-publicised research about tobacco, its effect on public health and how best to reduce this effect. A few months ago we heard that if you’re a woman and you stop smoking by the time you’re 30, your chance of dying from a smoking-related death is 97% less than if you carry on until middle age. Studies linking weight-loss or obesity and one lifestyle factor or another are numerous. And the infamous tabloid headlines claiming that pretty much every lifestyle choice conceivable can give you cancer are still being published. But how reliable are the studies? How should policy-makers (and the general public) know what to make of them?
Like studies on the health effects of illegal drugs and alcohol, the added political and commercial implications of research on these topics makes it more difficult to take research at face value. There are all sorts of potential sources of bias, from funding sources to personal desires for high impact publications and newspaper headlines. Equally many studies are large, rigorous and potentially hugely informative. Rather than being convinced by the research that most supports their own policy stance, politicians need to take a more analytical approach to health policy in key areas such as obesity and alcohol and tobacco use. The fact that there are only a handful of MPs in parliament with past experience as practicing scientists is evidence of the lack of scientific training in politics. That isn’t to say that all political decisions can be made based upon cold, hard, replicable scientific results – merely that better decisions can be made when all the possible evidence is examined and analyzed. “Evidence-based policy” is a term that gets banded about a lot, but really is essential to good political choices.
On a positive note, many are becoming aware of this need. There has been talk of manditory “science lessons” to teach politicians basic analytical skills, and there have been more and more vocal calls to forge more links between science and politics. In addition, Scientists are becoming more savvy when it comes to communicating science to politicians and the public. Many scientists are learning how to present their work to the media and becoming involved in engagement through social media, science fairs and TV appearances. A scheme pairing MPs with praciticing scientists has also been rolled out.These are all positive, exciting steps forward, but we will have to wait and see whether this will actually affect how politicians make decisions – decisions with the potential to affect us all.