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How poor health is linked with poverty

08 March 2013

THE Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, posted an inspirational video on his department's website on Tuesday, "launching" a new "ambition" for the NHS (note the avoidance of the word "target") to have the lowest mortality rates in Europe for the most fatal diseases. As figures published by The Lancet this week suggest, Britain is fast becoming the worst country in the developed world to stay healthy in - not the same thing by a long stretch. It now ranks 14th out of 19 countries in estimates of the age at which one can expect to stay healthy: 68.6 years old here, compared with, say, 70.9 years old in Spain.

Nowhere in the video does Mr Hunt associate low mortality with poverty; and yet this is the context in which he sets his remarks, beginning with the declaration: "If you are poor, or socially disadvantaged, Britain is probably the best country in the world to get ill in. And I think we all feel tremendously proud that, in this country, the size of your bank balance . . . doesn't determine the quality of the treatment that you get." This assertion might be correct as far as treatment for illness goes - though many with the wrong postcode might dispute this. But, clearly, the problem rests not with Mr Hunt, but with the whole Government.

Smoking and the abuse of alcohol are two key contributory factors to poor health. Efforts to price them out of the reach of the poorest have come to nothing. A 2006 study found that smoking rates corresponded almost exactly to levels of poverty: in the poorest wards of north-west England, between 42 and 52 per cent smoked; in the wealthiest wards in Hampshire and Surrey, the figure was between 12 and 18 per cent. In August last year, the North West Public Health Observatory published data comparing the 30 most affluent local authorities with the 30 most deprived. It found that men in the poorer neighbourhoods were 72 per cent more likely to die from an alcohol-related condition, and women 58 per cent more likely. These are just two of the statistics available that reveal the gulf between comfortable Britain and those who suffer deprivation. It is not, of course, that smoking and alcohol are compulsory for those below a certain income; nor that there are no poor people in the healthier countries such as Spain. But an unhealthy lifestyle is a sign of a much more complex set of problems that have at their heart inequality and hopelessness.

In his video, Mr Hunt remarked that 29,000 fewer people would die each year if the UK followed the example of Switzerland. No figures exist for the numbers who might survive if Britain were more equal. In her comment piece opposite, Christine Allen urges the Roman Catholic Church to rediscover its radical social teaching. The same could be said of all the Churches in the UK. "In as much as ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me."

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