Stronger action needed on major health risk factors

The Health Foundation has called for the government to take stronger action to tackle the leading risk factors for ill health following years of slow, uneven and disjointed policy making.  

The organisation’s new report assesses 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, relying on policies promoting individual behaviour change, is insufficient to deliver on its key targets and achieve its ‘levelling up’ mission to improve healthy life expectancy.

Currently, trends are going in the wrong direction. For example, childhood obesity rates have risen sharply, and inequalities have widened, whilst physical activity levels remain low and appear to have declined during the pandemic.  

It is believed that ‘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, could be more beneficial than individual behaviour change.

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 paper urges the government not to water down population-level measures aimed at restricting marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods, following worrying recent media reports.  

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.”

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