Why are we so unhealthy?
- 28 November 2012
- From the section Health
There are many ways to measure the health of the nation.
The publication of the government's consultation on a minimum price for alcohol puts the focus on harmful drinking habits.
Physical activity is also in the spotlight because of the call by health experts for people to cycle and walk more.
But to get the most comprehensive picture it is perhaps best to look at all the lifestyle factors together.
There are seven established factors that raise the risk of ill-health and these are all measured by the Health Survey for England.
They are: smoking, binge drinking, low fruit and vegetable consumption, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol (a lack of physical activity is a factor in the last three).
In England, an incredible 93% have at least one risk factor. Over a third have three or more.
That makes depressing reading and raises the question about why we are not doing more to look after ourselves.
People in England - and across the rest of the UK for that matter - have some of the worst lifestyles in Europe, particularly in terms of drinking habits and obesity levels.
There are a host of reasons and explanations put forward by experts.
Talking about the low cycling and walking rates, Dr Harry Rutter, of the National Obesity Observatory, laments the "congestion and pollution" in our built-up areas.
Many would agree with such sentiments, arguing the amount of traffic is also a major factor in why both children and adults are getting less active.
Dr Rutter wants to see councils, which get responsibility for public health next year, take a lead in creating environments that encourage healthier lifestyles, arguing they have a huge influence through their control of planning, housing transport, schools and leisure.
And certainly there is some good international evidence that action at a local level can make a difference.
Some of the countries with populations that pursue the most healthy lifestyles have strong and proactive local government, particularly those in Scandinavia.
Take the example of Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, where for the last two decades the city authorities have been investing in measures to encourage cycling.
The result? More than a third of people cycle to work, university or school, making it arguably the cycling capital of the world.
But of course councils can't solve all the problems on their own.
Commercial pressures from marketing and advertising are also often highlighted - and this is why the government has looked at regulation and legislation on a national level.
The minimum pricing proposal for alcohol is an example of this, as is the plain packaging suggestion for cigarettes which has already been put forward by ministers.
Socio-economic factors play a role as well. Research shows that those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to lead unhealthy lives.
Smoking - the leading cause of avoidable deaths - is now twice as common among groups in lower socio-economic groups.
But once again that cannot explain everything away. After all, as the overall figures show, having an unhealthy lifestyle is not a minority problem.
In fact, in some cases the worst excesses are seen among more affluent groups - for example, the largest rises in alcohol consumption have been seen in the higher income groups in recent years.
It raises the question whether there is something in the public psyche here which encourages people to gamble with their health.
Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, a former president of the Faculty of Public Health, while believing the focus should be squarely on the factors mentioned above, acknowledges there could be something in this.
"There may be a cultural reason. It could even be the NHS.
"Since 1948 there has perhaps been a feeling that medicine will be there to bail us out and that could be contributing to this. It's hard to know really, but what is clear is that we need to do something about it."