A government’s role in public health campaigns is not only necessary, it is desired and it works, according to speakers at the World Social Marketing conference in Dublin.

The two-day event earlier this month saw experts converge on the Irish capital to present, debate and analyse examples of social marketing campaigns from around the world – Japan, India, Coventry – whose successes have made a real difference to public health.

One aspect that cropped up on several occasions was the role of a government in public health campaigns. And with the present government scaling back marketing budgets in this age of austerity, interesting points were raised.

On Monday, in his paper Don’t Stop Me Now, Mark Blayney Stuart of the Chartered Institute of Marketing cited several instances where government-backed social marketing had had a measurable impact – notably, the Change4Life and THINK! (the Moment of Doubt) campaigns. The latter, according to Department of Transport estimates, has saved society more than £9 for every £1 spent on the marketing, while also saving 1,000 lives and preventing more than 90,000 injuries since its inception in 2007.

Change4Life, which started early in 2009, will cost £75m over the course of its three years – yet its goals of tackling obesity, which costs the NHS £4.2bn a year, have far greater saving potential.

It aims to reverse the growing trend in child obesity by 2020 to the levels seen 11 years ago, and with a purported 20 per cent of mothers with young children said to have made lifestyle changes as a result of the campaign already, by 2020 the savings to society could be running into billions of pounds – long after the campaign’s meagre-by-comparison spending has ended.

Furthermore, joining up with commercial partners has given the Change4Life message wider exposure at key points of intervention without extra outlay.

But the campaign also highlights one of the dilemmas facing government-led public health social marketing.  There is an increasing demand for instant, positive results and return on investment, when the reality is that public health outcomes can take several years to emerge.

As a result, said Mark Blayney Stuart, the government faces another dilemma in being accused of doing too little to tackle health issues when there aren’t quick results on show.

The difficulty in addressing such criticism is appearing too interfering – a “nanny state” government, Mr Blayney Stuart added.

Yet according to findings presented on Tuesday by Dan Wellings, Ipsos MORI’s head of public health research, government intervention is encouraged in public health, but only under certain conditions.

The study, which looked at responses to five types of government intervention in 24 different countries including the UK, found that there was a generally high support for public health information provided by a government. Similarly, the use of incentive schemes to encourage positive changes in public health was also generally well supported.

However, when it came to optional legislation as a form of public health intervention, a pattern emerged that saw wealthier countries, including the UK, less in favour of government involvement; a trend that increased further when mandatory legislation was proposed.

Despite that though, the two sets of research certainly seem to suggest that government-backed interventions as a method of driving improvement in public health can work, and have worked.

But if the result of significant marketing activity cuts in the area means that the effectiveness of such campaigns also shrinks, it would be a disastrous withdrawal of support for a health service embarking on a long road toward already challenging public health targets.