A new report is calling 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 analysis from the Health Foundation found that current health policy is relying too heavily on policies that promote individual behaviour change and is insufficient to deliver on its key targets and achieve its ‘levelling up’ mission to improve healthy life expectancy.

It shows trends are going in the wrong direction for many of the major health risk factors such as smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, and harmful alcohol use.  

In the first review of its kind to assess government policies tackling each of the leading risk factors driving ill health and early death in England, the Health Foundation found that smoking remains stubbornly high among those living in more deprived areas and alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths have increased and rates of harmful drinking have gone up.

It also found that physical activity levels remain low and appear to have declined during the pandemic.  

Authors of the report said that 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.  

They 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.  

Trends going in the wrong direction for many of the major health risk factors

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.  

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."