The NHS must spend more on ill health prevention despite the public spending squeeze, according to a major report on health inequalities published today.
The government commissioned report, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, follows an in-dependent review of health inequalities in England led by Sir Michael Marmot, which began in November 2008.
It sets out recommendations in six key areas for reducing health inequalities in England, which cost the NHS more than £5.5bn per year.
The review predicts that the cost of treating obesity related conditions alone will rise from £2bn per year to nearly £5bn per year by 2025, and says NHS spending on such areas must rise from its present 4 per cent.
But the highest priority, the review says, is to “rebalance” public spending towards the “early years” by giving children the best start in life through providing more parenting support programmes, a well trained workforce and high quality care.
It also recommends more efforts to boost educational attainment and employment among those from poorer backgrounds, as these bring physical and mental health benefits with them.
Additionally it calls for a “minimum income for healthy living” to be calculated - noting that having insufficient money to lead a healthy lifestyle is a major driver of inequality - and says that many green policies, such as encouraging cycling, would also help health.
Sir Michael said: “There will be those who say our recommendations cannot be afforded, particularly in the current economic climate.
“We say that it is inaction that cannot be afforded; the economic and importantly human costs are simply too high.”
Royal College of Physicians president Ian Gilmore said it was crucial that investment in public health continued during the recession. “The major killers in society – heart disease, cancer and COPD - are all subject to strong health inequalities, and the agents that are important in those diseases – smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are largely preventable.
“We know that interventions in public health are highly effective and cost effective, such as smoking cessation and interventions to tackle alcohol abuse. [Preventing ill health] must be made a really high priority in healthcare.”