Cuts 'increase drink death risks'
Government cuts in social care spending - including on disability and unemployment benefits - can have a huge impact on health, experts have said.
While ministers believe they are doing the right thing in protecting NHS funds, social welfare spending is just as important, if not more so, they said.
Every £70 cut in social welfare spending per person increases alcohol-related deaths by about 2.8% and deaths from heart disease by 1.2%, according to David Stuckler, from the University of Oxford, and his colleagues.
There are currently around 200,000 heart disease deaths each year in the UK and around 9,000 deaths from alcohol. The study comes after the Government announced Budget cuts, including to tax credits for families earning more than £40,000, and to housing benefit.
The welfare shake-up, which will save £11 billion by 2014/15, also sees the health in pregnancy grant abolished from April 2011 and the Sure Start maternity grant restricted to the first child.
Writing online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the researchers suggested that only protecting NHS spending was short-sighted.
"What little discussion there has been about health in the current economic recession has focused on whether to ringfence NHS spending. This is a narrow perspective given the extensive evidence that population health is not only determined by healthcare expenditure but by many factors outside the health system."
The researchers said children who receive better education, have safe environments in which to play, and who live in good quality housing are more likely to grow up healthy than those who do not. "Adults in secure and safe employment, receiving wages above the level needed merely to survive, are less likely to adopt hazardous lifestyles (such as smoking, drinking, or unhealthy diets) and can expect to live longer," they added.
The experts analysed data on social welfare spending from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This includes 15 European countries from 1980 to 2005, and looks at support and benefits for families and children, jobseekers, and support for people with disabilities.
They found that when social spending was high, death rates fell, but when they were low, the rates rose substantially. Levels of social spending in Europe are "strongly associated" with risks of death, especially from diseases relating to social circumstances, such as heart attacks and alcohol, they added.