People in the poorest parts of Wales die more than six years earlier and the cost-of-living crisis will accelerate health inequalities, Wales’ chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Sir Frank Atherton said the cost-of-living crisis will widen already increasing health differences between the best and worst off households.
In his 2023 annual report, Sir Frank cautioned that the cost-of-living crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the health of those on the lowest incomes.
Sir Frank said: “People living in the poorest parts of Wales already die more than six years earlier than those in the least deprived areas and spend more years in poorer health.
“Without appropriate action, the effect of the cost-of-living crisis will be to push more people in Wales from just about coping to a state of struggling or crisis, while those who were already the worst off see their situation deteriorate further.”
Sir Frank warned that the cost-of-living crisis could be as damaging as the Covid pandemic, saying: “The cost-of-living crisis has the potential to affect everyone in Wales, but those who were already the worst off are those who are, and will be, hardest hit.
“This is likely to include people on low incomes, homeless people, people living with disabilities, older people, children, and those living in rural areas.
“The cost-of-living crisis will therefore accelerate what were already increasing differences in health between the best off and worst off households in Wales.”
Calling for an urgent public health response to mitigate the impact of the crisis, Sir Frank said soaring inflation is having a compounding impact as the whole system is less able to respond to a growing need for health, care and support services.
Latest statistics, for 2018-2020, show that life expectancy at birth for males was 74.1 years in the most deprived areas of Wales compared with 81.6 years in the least.
The data shows that females live for 78.4 years and 84.7 years respectively.
Sir Frank’s report, Shaping our Health, which was published on Thursday, 2 October, also cautioned that big businesses can undermine the nation’s health.
He raised concerns about the food, alcohol and gambling industries marketing unhealthy products by funding education programmes in schools.
More than 60 per cent of the Welsh population and nearly one in three children starting primary school are overweight or obese.
The chief medical officer recommended that the Welsh Government considers the role of taxes on salt and sugar in future if the industry-led pace of change is insufficient.
Sir Frank also urged the Welsh Government to explore legislation to expand the range of smoke-free spaces, starting with outdoor eating areas.
He called for e-cigarettes to be regulated in a similar way.
Sir Frank warned that climate change is having a profound impact on people’s health, saying it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society.
“Climate changes are not only harming our natural environment,” he said. “But also impacting on our social environment and our personal health.
“The World Health Organisation has stated that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.”
Public Health Wales research showed an average of 98.1 deaths a day in Wales during Met Office extreme heat alerts compared with 84.3 deaths on cooler days.
Sir Frank also raised concerns about so-called green-washing – “a public relations tactic used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly”.