Businesses make £52.7 billion a year from UK sales of tobacco, junk food and excessive alcohol, and their consumption is contributing to Britain’s rising tide of disease, a report says.
The figures prompted a coalition of health, medical and children’s organizations to call for urgent action against the “irresponsible behavior of industries that harm health”.
The government’s failure to properly regulate these industries is damaging public health, increasing strain on the NHS and causing a £31 billion hit to the economy, they said. Manufacturers made huge profits by bombarding consumers with marketing and deliberately thwarting government efforts to curb their activities, such as attempts to discredit scientific evidence of harm.
The report was prepared by health organizations and economic consultancy Landman Economics. It is the first to calculate exactly how much money people in the UK spend on ‘risky consumption’ of products that evidence suggests are or may be harmful to human health.
It found that consumers spend £81.5 billion a year on unhealthy products, of which the Exchequer makes £28.8 billion through VAT revenue.
The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in association with Landman Economics. For example, they estimated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS). These sales together earn the food industry £34.2bn.
Similarly, they found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units per week, and is therefore potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2 billion from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue comes from sales of products known to kill half the people who use them, they found.
“These findings show that these unhealthy industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling products that make us sick,” said Hazel Cheesman, Ash’s deputy executive director.
One in eight (13%) adults in England smoke, one in five (21%) drink more than the recommended maximum of 14 units per week and 64% of adults are overweight or obese.
The three health organizations said: “Big business is currently profiting from ill health caused by smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy foods, while society pays the price in poor health, higher taxes and an underperforming economy.”
The research also found that:
NHS hospitals see 2.5 million patients a year for treatment of conditions directly related to being overweight (1.02 million), drinking (980,000) or smoking (506,000).
About 459,000 people are unable to work because they are too ill to do so as a result of smoking (289,000), drinking alcohol (99,000) or being morbidly obese, with a body mass index over 40 (70,000).
People who smoke or drink at harmful levels are more likely to be unemployed and earn less than those who don’t – a “wage penalty” for their unhealthy lifestyles.
This wage penalty, along with unemployment and lost productivity due to smoking, drinking and obesity, costs the UK £31 billion a year.
Health groups have called on ministers to take tough action to give public health a higher priority, given the scale of the damage caused by the products of the three multi-billion pound industries. They are calling on the government to crack down on advertising; raising the price and age of sale of harmful products; removing certain products from a prominent place in shops and creating media campaigns to warn the public about the risks posed by ‘unhealthy products’.
“Tobacco, alcohol and junk food are causing significant harm to our society,” said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, AHA Chairman and President of the British Medical Association. “The government cannot afford to sit idly by any longer.
“As funding for public sector services shrinks, the industries that trade in these harmful products are lining their pockets with billions in revenue. It is time for the government to put the health of our nation ahead of industry profits,” he added.
The Portman Group, an alcohol industry trade body, said a crackdown on alcohol was unnecessary because most adults drink moderately. The health groups’ proposals, including the minimum unit price, are “disproportionate and inappropriate”, said Matt Lambert, its chief executive.
“Significant progress has been made in recent years to tackle harmful drinking, partly thanks to schemes funded by the alcohol industry, and it is counterproductive to try to prevent further collaboration between government, industry and third sector organizations on these issues. We also strongly support targeted and personalized measures aimed at those who drink the most, and agree that everyone who needs it should have access to treatment.
The Food and Drink Federation declined to comment.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.