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A national blueprint to cut the life-expectancy gap between the wealthiest and poorest Australians, developed by more than 60 of Australia’s leading health experts, has been unveiled.

It coincides with the release of Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021, a report card that compares the relationship between socioeconomic status and risk factors for preventable chronic diseases and poor health, which reveals that poorer Australians are living up to 6.4 fewer years than the wealthiest Australians.

Launched by AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid today, the blueprint, Getting Australia’s Health on Track 2021, outlines the urgent policy action needed to end the 18,000 extra deaths from preventable illness each year among poorer Australians.

Its recommendations include a sugar levy, curbs on junk food marketing aimed at children, a reduction in salt processed foods, a volumetric alcohol tax, and restricting late night alcohol supply.

Lead author Professor Rosemary Calder, from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute and Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC), said the time for action was long overdue. Similar policies have been successfully implemented internationally and Australia is lagging behind in doing more to protect people from harm and reduce the burden on the health system, she added.

The latest data shows the 20% of Australians in the lowest socioeconomic communities, compared to the wealthiest 20%, are:

  • 5 times more likely to die early
  • 70% more likely to be physically inactive
  • Almost three times more likely to smoke
  • 57% more likely to be obese
  • Twice as likely to have diabetes
  • 80% more likely to die by suicide

“Eighteen times more poorer Australians have died from preventable illness in the past year than have died from COVID,” Professor Calder said.

“The policy solutions for this will cost a tiny fraction of what we have had to spend to fight COVID and will deliver significant health benefits and longer healthy years to most Australians.”

The Tracker by Socioeconomic Status warns that even middle class Australians are 23% more likely to die early of a preventable illness compared to the top income earners. Without immediate policy action, the risks for preventable illness will remain above the 2025 targets recommended by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration.

“Without adopting policy change we will only see the gap in life expectancy widen between rich and poor,” Professor Calder warned.

The health tracker looks at the key lifestyle health risk indicators that trigger red flags for developing chronic illness and preventable early death. Across health risk indicators, those in the lowest wealth bracket have the highest levels of risks.

Professor Calder said the difference in life expectancy between wealth groups was completely preventable.

“We are consistently seeing an improvement in health across almost all risk factors for our wealthiest Australians. These are people that have benefitted from education so they are more likely to have good health literacy and be able to seek out and understand health information. They have the funds to get the support they need to improve their health and well-being and they often live in areas that foster a healthy lifestyle such as access to outdoor spaces to exercise, low cost fresh healthy foods and more primary health services.”

Professor Calder said the current development of a National Preventive Health Strategy, if properly funded and implemented, could deliver real health improvements for all Australians. The policy recommendations in Getting Australia’s Health on Track can help the Strategy to deliver on its potential; and the Tracker shows where the priority efforts through the Strategy should be made, she said.