The radical Welsh health tradition

Wales is once again at the forefront of new thinking for improving public health, says Rebecca Evans AM 

Wales has a long and proud history of taking radical action to protect the nation’s public health. The Public Health (Wales) Act, which received royal assent this month, is the latest example of how we can – and will – use our powers to take steps to improve health and wellbeing in Wales.

Since devolution in 1999, Welsh Labour in government has worked hard to improve public health in Wales and prevent the causes of ill health. We were the first part of the United Kingdom to vote in favour of a ban on smoking in enclosed public places and we were the first country in the UK to take concerted action to address the issue of smoking in cars when children are present – both issues have since been taken forward on a UK basis.

We have passed UK-first laws to drive up hygiene standards across the food industry by making it mandatory for businesses to display their food hygiene ratings in their premises and a statement on their takeaway menus and we have changed the organ donation system in Wales, increasing the number of donated organs available for transplant.

The Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 builds on the good work we have done in Wales to reduce adult smoking levels to their current level of 19 per cent – from 25 per cent in 2005-06 – and to prevent children becoming addicted.

The ban on smoking in enclosed public places, which was introduced 10 years ago in Wales, has been incredibly successful. Our multi-faceted approach has helped almost 100,000 people to stop smoking, and is making smoking much less of a social norm than it once was.

The new Public Health Act extends smoke-free areas to new outdoor settings for the first time – these are school and hospital grounds, and public playgrounds. It also introduces a new tobacco retail register, which will help prevent underage sales and creates a new offence of handing over tobacco to children and under-18s – this will prevent delivery drivers knowingly handing over cigarettes and other nicotine products to children.

But this act is about much more than the control of tobacco and smoking. It is a wide-ranging act, covering a variety of areas from placing a duty on local authorities to produce a toilets-for-public-use strategy to introducing health impact assessments, which require public bodies to consider how their decisions will affect people’s health.

There are provisions within the new act for the National Health Service to make pharmacy services more responsive to their communities, and it also requires the Welsh Government to produce a national strategy to prevent and reduce obesity.

One of the largest parts of the act relates to the regulation of special procedures – tattooing, piercing, electrolysis and acupuncture. Practitioners will need to be licensed, and their premises registered, if they want to practise in Wales – this will help to improve hygiene and standards across the industry; helping to reduce the risk of infection and disease.

The act allows for other procedures to be added to the special procedures regime in the future on a case by case basis.

The inclusion of these provisions in the act was reinforced when hundreds of young people were tested for hepatitis B and C and HIV after a number of serious skin infections were linked to a former piercing and tattoo business in Newport, in South Wales. It also bans intimate piercing for all under-18s.

Welsh Labour in Government will build on this. We are committed to introducing further public health legislation this year to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol, which will help to tackle the issue of problem drinking and reduce the harm associated with it in Wales.

Our wide-ranging legislation will have a significant and lasting impact on health in Wales. It will make a real difference to people of all generations – from children who will be protected from the harms of second-hand smoke and the risks associated with intimate piercings to older people who will benefit from better planning of public toilet provision.

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Rebecca Evans AM is minister for social services and public health in the Welsh government. She tweets at @RebeccaEvansAM

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