Research Output
A review of major influences on current public health policy in developed countries in the second half of the 20th century
  Public health policy underwent substantial transformation during the latter half of the 20th century. The landmark statement was the 1948 World Health Organization (WHO) constitution, which identified good health as a fundamental right and gave the responsibility to governments to achieve it for all their people. However, following World War II, developed countries made substantial investment in health care with less attention paid to public health.

The importance of public health was slowly recognised over the period from 1970 to 2000 with the publication of several reports from different organisations. The first authoritative policy statement that the important determinants of health lay outside health care was in the Lalonde Report from Canada. These ideas were subsequently expressed in the WHO Alma-Ata declaration and were emphasised a year later by the US Surgeon General. The idea of setting goals for health improvement also began in the 1970s. The Lalonde Report and the United Kingdom Black Report recommended that targets be used, but the first explicitly stated health targets were set by the US in 1979. WHO also identified the need for such targets at this time, but did not introduce them until 1984. Since then health targets have become a central feature of public health policy in developed countries.

The Ottawa Conference on Health Promotion in 1986 championed the view that health promotion was central to achieving health goals internationally. It helped clarify the types of actions needed: that individuals need to be provided with the supportive environment and economic resources to be able to lead healthy lives. In a further development, the Healthy Cities Project was launched with the specific aim of involving political decision-makers in building a strong lobby for public health at the local level. The Healthy Cities Project illustrates how to provide means and opportunity for interventions to be implemented in communities.

Concerns with inequalities in health were emphasised in the WHO declaration of Alma-Ata, and were the focus of the United Kingdom Black Report. The Jakarta Conference on Health Promotion in 1997 urged international action on poverty, as it is the major threat to health. International acceptance of the need to tackle inequalities took longer than the acceptance of health targets, but it is now an important feature of public health policy.

The advent of the 21st century marked the coming of age of public health. The renewed version of ‘Health for All’, ‘Health for All in the 21st Century’, emphasised the one constant goal of WHO that all individuals should achieve their full health potential. Public health is now regarded internationally as being a priority with this WHO goal being adopted as the overarching goal of policy. The challenges it faces in tackling problems such as obesity, inequalities in health, smoking, alcohol and substance abuse are great and will require policies which tackle the economic, social and environmental determinants of health.

  • Type:


  • Date:

    31 March 2006

  • Publication Status:


  • Publisher

    Royal Society for the Promotion of Health

  • DOI:


  • ISSN:


  • Library of Congress:

    HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    362 Social welfare problems & services


Irvine, L., Elliott, L., Wallace, H., & Crombie, I. K. (2006). A review of major influences on current public health policy in developed countries in the second half of the 20th century. The journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 126(2), 73-78.



Health determinants; health targets; inequalities in health policy development; public health;

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