THE HEALTH FOUNDATION  has published a report calling on the UK government to take stronger action to tackle the leading risk factors for ill health in England, following years of slow, uneven and disjointed policy making. 

The analysis is the first review of its kind to assess UK government policies tackling each of the leading risk factors driving ill health and early death in England, including smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, and harmful alcohol use.

It finds that the government’s current approach – which relies heavily on policies that promote individual behaviour change – is insufficient to deliver on its key targets and achieve its ‘levelling up’ mission to improve healthy life expectancy. The report shows trends are going in the wrong direction for many of the major health risk factors:

  • Childhood obesity rates have risen sharply, and inequalities have widened.
  • Smoking remains stubbornly high among those living in more deprived areas.
  • Alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths have increased and rates of harmful drinking have gone up.
  • Physical activity levels remain low and appear to have declined during the pandemic.

Government inaction on these leading risk factors has a costly impact not only on the health of individuals but on public services and the wider economy. More than a third of those aged 25–64 in areas of England with the lowest healthy life expectancy are economically inactive due to long-term sickness or disability.

The review finds recent government policies have focused largely on providing information and services designed to change individuals’ behaviour, rather than ‘population-level’ interventions such as minimum unit pricing for alcohol, regulations to restrict marketing and advertising, and taxes aimed at encouraging reformulation of unhealthy products. This is despite strong evidence that such interventions are most likely to be both effective and equitable in tackling major risk factors for ill health. The review also shows the government’s approach has been uneven across different health risk factors, with particularly weak action taken to tackle harmful alcohol use.

It goes on to say that policies directly targeting smoking, poor diet, harmful alcohol use and physical inactivity must be underpinned by wider action to improve the circumstances in which people live – reducing factors such as poverty and poor housing and making it easier for people to adopt healthy behaviours.

The report’s authors say that the upcoming white paper on ‘health disparities’ is a crucial moment for government to present a more coherent long-term strategy to tackle the leading risk factors driving ill health in England. The authors urge government not to water down population-level measures aimed at restricting marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods, following worrying recent media reports.

New polling from the Health Foundation and Ipsos also signals that the public is not satisfied with the government’s current approach, with only around one in five(18 per cent) agreeing that the government has the right policies in place to improve public health.

Grace Everest, Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “If the government is serious about achieving its levelling up mission on healthy life expectancy – not to mention the targets that have been set on obesity and tobacco – then it urgently needs to shift its approach. Government’s focus needs to be on population-level policies that aim to alter the environments in which people live – including taxation, regulation, and public spending – which should be implemented alongside more targeted interventions to support those most in need. Wider action is also needed to address the root causes of poor health and widening inequalities.

“The upcoming health disparities white paper is the key moment in this parliament for government to grasp the nettle and present a more coherent, long-term strategy to tackle poor diet, smoking and other leading health risk factors.

“With trends going in the wrong direction for many of the major health risk factors, inequalities widening and key national targets set to be missed, it is clear the approach taken to date has been inadequate.”

* Read Addressing the leading risk factors for ill health: A review of government policies tackling smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and harmful alcohol use in England here.

* Source: The Health Foundation