Welfare cuts put added health strain on population

Pint of beer and a cigarette
Image caption Drinking and smoking are two causes of poor health

Cutting welfare budgets could cost lives, say researchers.

Analysis of European data showed that a £70 reduction in welfare spending per person is associated with a 2.8% rise in alcohol-related deaths and 1.2% rise in deaths from heart disease.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the UK research team said ordinary people may be paying the ultimate price for budget cuts.

One expert added that social support was vital for health.

The study comes after the government announced sweeping budget cuts, including reductions in tax credits for families, housing benefit and maternity grants.

To pick out the effects of welfare funding on health, researchers looked at government spending in 15 European countries, including the UK, from 1980 to 2005.

Generally the trends showed that when social spending - including support for families and the unemployed - was high, death rates fell, but when they were low, rates rose substantially.

In fact, for every £70 drop in spending per person there was a 1.19% rise in overall deaths.

The biggest effect was seen in illnesses linked to social circumstances, such as heart disease.

And a more in-depth look showed that this link was specific to social welfare spending and independent of healthcare spending.

The analysis also showed that reducing other forms of government spending, such as on the military or prisons, had no such negative impact on the public's health.

There are currently around 200,000 heart disease deaths each year in the UK and around 9,000 deaths from alcohol.

Ringfenced budgets

Study leader Dr David Stuckler, a lecturer at the University of Oxford, said that although governments may feel they are protecting population health by safeguarding the healthcare budgets, welfare spending may actually be more important.

In addition, he warned that the added burden of poor health linked to welfare cuts could place more strain on the NHS.

"So far the discussions around budget cuts have largely focused on economics.

"But social circumstances are crucial to people's health and our study shows there could be quite significant harms.

"If we want to promote a sustainable recovery in Britain, we must first ensure that we have taken care of people's most basic health needs."

Professor Alan Maryon-Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: "Health is much wider than the health service and social support is crucially important.

"It would be tragic if we find ourselves in this recession dismantling the welfare state."

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "We are committed to reforming the welfare system to make work pay.

"We know that work itself is the best way out of poverty."

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