Firms earn £53bn a year from UK smoking, excess drinking and junk food – study

Firms are earning £52.7bn a year from UK sales of tobacco, junk food and excessive alcohol, and their consumption is contributing to Britain’s rising tide of illness, a report says.

The figures prompted a coalition of health, medical and children’s organisations to demand an urgent crackdown on “the irresponsible behaviour of health-harming industries”.

The government’s failure to properly regulate those industries was damaging public health, adding to the strain on the NHS and causing a £31bn hit to the economy, they said. The manufacturers were making vast profits by bombarding consumers with marketing and deliberately obstructing efforts by the government to restrict their activities, such as seeking to discredit scientific evidence of harm.

The report was drawn up by health organisations and the economics consultancy Landman Economics. It is the first to estimate exactly how much money people in Britain are spending on “risky consumption” of products that evidence shows are, or can be, bad for human health.

It found consumers spend £81.5bn a year on unhealthy products, from which the Treasury makes £28.8bn through VAT receipts.

The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in conjunction with Landman Economics. For example, they calculated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those 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 a week, and is thus potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue is from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them, they found.

“These findings show that these health-harming industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling us products that are making us ill,” said Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.

One in eight (13%) adults in England smoke, one in five (21%) drink more than the recommended 14 units a week maximum and 64% of adults are overweight or obese.

The three health organisations said: “Big businesses are currently profiting from ill health caused by smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy foods, while the public pay the price in poor health, higher taxes and an under-performing economy.”

The research also found that:

  • NHS hospitals admit 2.5 million patients a year for treatment of diseases directly linked to being overweight (1.02 million), drinking (980,000) or smoking (506,000).

  • About 459,000 people cannot work because they are too ill to do so as a result of their smoking (289,000), alcohol consumption (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 jobless and earn less than those who do not – a “wage penalty” for their unhealthy lifestyles.

  • That wage penalty, together with unemployment and lost productivity due to smoking, drinking and obesity, costs the UK £31bn a year.

The health groups urged ministers to take tough action to give greater priority to public health, given the scale of harm caused by the three multibillion-pound industries’ products. They are calling for the government to crack down on advertising; raise the price of, and age of sale for, harmful products; remove certain products from prominent position in shops, and create mass media campaigns to alert the public to the risks posed by “health-harming products”.

“Tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food are causing significant harm to our society,” said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the AHA and president of the British Medical Association. “The government cannot afford to sit on its hands any longer.

“As funding to public sector services dwindle, the industries peddling these harmful products line their pockets with billions in revenue. It’s time that the government puts the health of our nation before the profits of industry,” he added.

The Portman Group, an alcohol industry trade body, said a crackdown on alcohol was unnecessary because most adults drank moderately. The health groups’ proposals, including minimum unit pricing, were “disproportionate and inappropriate”, said Matt Lambert, its chief executive.

“Significant progress has been made to tackle harmful drinking in recent years, thanks in part to schemes funded by the alcohol industry, and it is counterproductive to try to prevent further cooperation between the government, industry and third sector organisations on these issues. We also vocally support targeted and tailored measures focused at those drinking at the heaviest rates, and agree that all those who need it should be able to access treatment.”

The Food and Drink Federation declined to comment.

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.


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