The government has also been as busy on public health reform as it has in the NHS; continuing to produce a raft of public health strategy documents around key risky lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, obesity and alcohol, and supporting the Responsibility Deal and campaigns such as Change4Life. The latest steps include the intention to adopt a minimum price for alcohol and the consultation on plain packaging for tobacco.
However, whilst there is continual evolution in policy on individual behaviours, we tend to hear much less about how unhealthy behaviours cluster together in different population groups, and how that in turn may relate to inequalities in health. We think this is an important, complementary way at looking at behaviour change and have published a study of how four common lifestyle behaviours – smoking, non-adherence to guidelines on fruit and vegetable consumption, excessive consumption of alcohol and low levels of physical activity – cluster in the English population and how that is changing over time.
We used two waves of the Health Survey for England and found that between 2003 and 2008, the proportion of the population who had three or four of these unhealthy behaviours fell significantly, from around one in three adults to around one in four. This is really good news, since we know – from a long-term study on the combined impact of health behaviours and mortality that followed people over time, using similar metrics – that after an average of 11 years follow-up, about one in four people with all four behaviours had died compared to just one in 20 of those with none of them. Any news that the population as a whole is moving ’down the ladder’ of multiple lifestyle risk therefore means saved lives.
The bad news is that the large majority of the improvements have come from people from high socio-economic groups and with higher education levels. Although there did not seem to be any worsening over time, the poorest and least educated saw no improvement over the five years between health surveys. This means that relative inequalities have increased and are becoming more polarised. For example, the chances of someone with no qualifications having four unhealthy behaviours compared to someone with higher education increased from three-fold to five-fold over the period.
We can only speculate on why we have seen these changes. The old adage that more research is necessary is very true, since this is the first study we’re aware of that has looked at change in this way in the English population. This type of research can provide a valuable tool for the government to help it achieve its aim to increase the health of the poorest, fastest. But it does raise serious questions about whether a focus on single behaviour approaches, whilst necessary, are on their own sufficient in relation to inequality goals.
Whilst central government can help in setting laws and regulating industry and prices, much of the future responsibility for behaviour change will lie with local authorities. Understanding the very specific ways that behaviours cluster in local patches will be important if efforts are to be rewarded. Re-analysing local health and wellbeing surveys along the lines above is a simple first step to doing this. Beyond that, there are some great examples already of where 'every contact counts' is starting to inform the work of local authorities as a whole. We also believe there is great potential in the existing health trainer and community champions networks to make a real impact on reducing the evident inequalities in the clustering of behaviours our report has unearthed.