It is a pleasure to be speaking with you about something that I know all of us in the room are passionate about changing in this country – health inequality.
It comes as no surprise that the Office for National Statistics found earlier this month that the least deprived men at birth in 2014 to 2016 could expect to live almost a decade longer than the most deprived. This decade has seen a slowdown in improvements in life expectancy, an appalling consequence of this Government’s failure to improve the chances of the worst-off, as years of underfunding in health and social care take their toll.
Similarly, the north south divide remains as relevant as ever. For both males and females, the healthy life expectancy at birth is the highest in the South East, at 65.9 years for men and 66.6 for women. I am sure you can guess which region is the lowest!
Here in the North East healthy life expectancy for men is 59.7 years and for women it is 59.8 years – significantly lower than the England average. That means that inequality gap in healthy life expectancy at birth for the South East and North East is 6.2 years for men and 6.8 years for women.
There are lots of factors that play into these figures, and life expectancy here is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country, but it is simply not good enough that those from deprived areas are having their life expectancy shortened. That is why we all need to make a pledge to change this.
Today I’m going to speak about three public health epidemics that affect, not just the North East but the whole country: smoking, obesity and malnutrition. If we are able to tackle these epidemics, then we will be a step closer to achieving the goal of the UK having some of the healthiest people in the world.
Smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable deaths – in 2015, 16% of all deaths in people aged 35 or over in England were estimated as being attributable to smoking. It is estimated that 474,000 hospital admissions a year in England are directly attributable to smoking, which represents 4% of all hospital admissions. Smoking causes around 80% of deaths from lung cancer, around 80% of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema, and about 14% of deaths from heart disease. Therefore, smoking and its related health problems leave a heavy burden on our already financially strapped NHS, costing more than £2.5 billion each year. Addressing smoking in our society could therefore help reduce that high financial cost and money could be directed towards improving our NHS and ensuring that we have a healthy society.
Smoking prevalence is decreasing across the country, and I’m pleased to say that smoking rates in the North East is declining faster than the national average. This is due to great support from programmes such as Fresh North East, which since 2005 has been tackling high smoking rates here. They have clearly been doing an excellent job, as since 2005, the North East has seen a fall of nearly a third with around 165,000 fewer smokers. However, the North East still has the highest lung cancer rates in the country and smoking rates still remain high, especially among those who are unemployed or members of lower socioeconomic groups and it is deeply concerning that those groups, for whom poverty is rife, are not being sufficiently helped to quit smoking.
I welcome the Government’s Tobacco Control Plan – even though it was delayed by 18 months – but the Government must move away from warm words and empty promises and commit to the right funding for smoking cessation services so that smoking rates can decline across the country.
Obesity and malnutrition
I have also been calling on the Government to go further in their commitment to reduce obesity levels. The UK has one of the worst obesity rates in Western Europe, with almost two in every three people being either overweight or obese. I am one of those two, but I am back on a strict diet now to try and become the one, I hope that there will soon be a lot less of me! It is hard though, if it was so easy no one would be overweight.
However, I was a skinny kid and a slim teenager and proud to say a size 10 when I got married and I still ended up overweight as time went by. So therefore I worry greatly when I see all the stats for this country’s children when a pattern now emerges at a very early age. In 2016/17 almost a quarter of reception children, aged between 3 and 4, were overweight or obese. In the same year, for pupils in year 6, it was over a third. An obese child is also over five times more likely to grow up into an obese adult, so the Government should be doing all that it can to ensure that child obesity rates are reduced as a matter of urgency.
The Government’s Child Obesity Strategy to tackle this was welcome, but left much to be desired. I am sure some of you will know that it was published in the middle of summer recess, during the Olympics and on A- Level results day. At first, I thought the strategy must have been missing some pages. But it turned out, this world-first strategy really was just thirteen pages long. For whatever reason, many of the commitments David Cameron had promised and desired as his legacy had been taken out by Theresa May and her staff. We now know that May’s former joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill, is said to have boasted about “Saving Tony the Tiger”, the Frosties Mascot. Now that Fiona is out of the picture, we are expecting a second Childhood Obesity Strategy this summer, so I hope that there will be more than thirteen pages!
Of course, there is no silver bullet to tackling childhood obesity. As I said, if staying slim and losing weight was easy then we wouldn’t have the problem we have now. However, there are two policy suggestions that I have been championing recently: restricting junk food advertising until the 9pm watershed on all channels not just on children’s channels and restricting the sale of energy drinks to young people.
Advertising is so much more powerful than we all think. There is a reason they spend many millions on it! According to a University of Liverpool report, 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time were for foods high in fat, salt and sugar and would have been banned from Children’s TV. The same report also found that, in the worst case, children were bombarded with nine junk food adverts in just a 30- minute period, and that adverts for fruit and vegetables made up just over 1% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time. It is therefore no wonder that there are so many children in this country who are overweight or obese. That is why I’ve been calling for restrictions on junk food advertising on TV, but I know that other modes of advertising need to be investigated more widely too like advergames and food brands which are high in fat, salt and sugar sponsoring sporting events that are popular with children.
This leads me to my next point of energy drinks, because to pin point just one brand, Red Bull who sponsor several extreme sports competitions which are not necessarily marketed to children, but are watched by children. When my son was a teenager, I would go so far as to say that he was addicted to energy drinks. And it was a huge problem for me, especially as he could legally buy them as he told me every day in his defence, in his eyes I was being ridiculous! He and his friends would buy and drink bottles and cans of them every day and it would completely change his personality. I’m pleased to say that ten years on he is older and much more sensible now, thanks to me warning him of the health dangers of energy drinks.
Although that was a decade ago, the trend still remains that children, as young as ten, are buying energy drinks for as little as 25p. The UK has the second highest consumption of energy drinks per head in the world. You might expect America to have the highest consumption, but it is actually Austria, home to Red Bull headquarters. A 500ml can of energy drink contains 12 teaspoons of sugar and the same amount of caffeine as a double espresso. You wouldn’t give a child have 12 teaspoons of sugar or a double espresso, so why are we allowing them to drink it in an energy drink?
If we want our children to be the healthiest in the world, we cannot sit idly on this any longer. Thankfully, many supermarkets and some retailers have now taken the step to restrict the sale of energy drinks to children. Supermarkets such as: Waitrose, Aldi, Asda, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Tesco, Lidl have restricted the sale. Boots lead the way in being the first non-food retailer to restrict the sale of energy drinks to children a few weeks ago, and just this week they were joined by Shell Petrol Stations and WH Smith. I am still calling on all supermarkets and retailers to take steps to do this.
The Government have got to do better if our children are going to be encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle and eat a healthy diet.
However, there are millions of people up and down the country who do not have access to healthy and affordable fresh food or the skills to cook up tasty meals or even the cooking equipment or the energy such as gas or electric especially when poor and on key meters, which leads us to another issue which certainly does not get the attention it deserves: malnutrition. Malnutrition affects over three million people in the UK, 1.3 million of which are over the age of 65. Like obesity, malnutrition is a Public Health epidemic, but because it is literally less visible, it does not receive the attention or outcry that you would expect. On this Government’s watch, we have seen a 54% increase in children admitted to hospital with malnutrition and in the last decade, we have seen the number of deaths from malnutrition rise by 30%. It should be at the forefront of this Government’s conscience that in one of the 6th richest economies in the world in 2018, malnutrition is increasing instead of being eradicated. I’m proud to say that Labour will make it a priority to invest in our health services and ensure people don’t die from malnutrition in 21st century Britain.
Both obesity and malnutrition are costly to our NHS, estimated at £5.1 billion a year for obesity and £13 billion a year for malnutrition. That is why prevention is so important and why I am a key campaigner for Universal Free School Meals, because it gives all children access to a hot and healthy meal, encourages a healthy relationship with food and is beneficial to their mental and physical development. Healthy food needs to be both affordable and accessible, and individuals need the skills to prepare and cook a fresh and healthy meal.
Finally, we all know that the NHS lacks the funding and the time it needs to do all of the things I have just mentioned. Since local authorities became responsible for public health budgets in 2015, it is estimated by the Kings Fund that, on a like-for-like basis, public health spending will actually fall by 5.2%. This follows a £200 million in-year cut to public health spending in 2015/16 and further real-term cuts to come, averaging 3.9% each year between 2016/17 and 2020/21. On the ground this means cuts to spending on sexual health services by £30 million compared to last year, tackling drug misuse in adults cut by more than £22 million and smoking cessation services cut by almost £16 million. Spending to tackle obesity has also fallen by 18.5% between 2015/16 and 2016/17, again with further cuts still in the pipeline in the years to come.
The North East Commission for Health and Social Care Integration area spends £5.2bn on health and care each year. Over 60% of this is spent on tackling the consequences of ill health through hospital and specialist care, compared to the 3% devoted to public health. That is over twenty times more spent on consequences rather than prevention. So if the UK is going to be one of the healthiest countries in the world, then the Government really does need to recognise the importance of prevention and public health. If we invest in our NHS and public health services, then we invest in the health of everyone in this country and that is why public health is so important.
I look forward to working with you all now and in the future to ensure that one day we can proudly say that people in the UK are some of the healthiest in the world.