Professor Adrian Bauman writes:
This paper, Are cars the new tobacco?, published in the Journal of Public Health by UK public health experts, is an interesting look at the “elephant in the room” with respect to physical activity promotion.
With tobacco control and public health, there was always “an enemy”, the tobacco industry, whose clear actions led to and promoted an unhealthy product.
The “enemy” of physical activity is less clear – many pervasive elements contribute to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and reduced opportunities to be active.
The authors of this paper make the analogy that cars are like tobacco, an “archetypically ecological risk factor” for many public health outcomes.
Cars lead to pollution, adverse air quality, noise, motor vehicle injuries and death, and to community fragmentation through car-led social isolation and urban sprawl.
These are social and environmental issues, and are aligned not only with specific environmental threats to health, but also to the environmental agenda more broadly, and with other groups and issues such as New Urbanist planning principles.
With respect to physical activity, cars lead to “inactive travel” for adults, and reduced walking or cycling to school among children and youth.
This is a major contributor over past decades to inactive lifestyles, removing energy expended from daily life for many developed and developing country populations. In fact this is one of the major reasons for decreasing energy expenditure, the other being the sedentary increases in time spent in information-edutainment pursuits, at work and at home.
What is interesting is the analogy with tobacco producers – here the producers are the car industry and its lobbyists, in concert with the petrol [gasoline] lobby, that work to influence public policy and politicians to retain large road building budgets and maintain other policies to support cars.
Further, like tobacco, the authors argue cars are addictive – and we are certainly culturally habituated to their perceived “convenience of use”.
This paper puts physical activity promotion into a political space – namely as an adversary of unbridled car use, and that understanding and awareness, and the enormity of the challenge, is certainly likely to change physical activity strategies.
The consequence is that physical activity advocates need to think and act on a much larger scale.
The challenge is that the counter-car actions are not immediately clear, but like tobacco, will require sustained advocacy, efforts to change urban design and transport systems, and evidence generation around active travel [by foot and bicycle and public transport], as a likely strategy to increase population physical activity levels.
As an additional thought: physical activity practitioners need to form inter-agency partnerships, as there are many other relevant health and non-health issues and dimensions to the “car issue”, as are well outlined in this paper.
• Adrian Bauman is the Sesquicentenary Professor of Public Health in the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney