Health inequalities don’t always match patterns in health behaviours

The risk of ill health typically increases with disadvantage, however the same is not always seen for health behaviours, which can have minimal or even reversed social gradients.

Key points

  • Social gradients do exist for many health behaviours, such as smoking in pregnancy, However, for some health behaviours, the gradient is minimal or even reversed.
  • For example, rates of alcohol-specific deaths increase with area deprivation, but hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption shows the opposite – those from advantaged backgrounds are most likely to drink high levels of alcohol.
  • Similarly, risk of childhood obesity increases with area deprivation, but we don’t see inequalities in children’s daily physical activity levels – children from less advantaged backgrounds are as active and potentially more active than their more advantaged peers.
  • The health consequences of some behaviours, like drinking alcohol, can be worse among disadvantaged groups. This is because they experience other risk factors for ill health, including food insecurity, targeted advertising, and barriers to high quality preventative health services and treatment.
  • Well-intentioned behaviour change campaigns can increase health inequalities because people must have sufficient resources to implement the changes and see the benefits. Efforts are therefore also needed to alter the social and economic environments that people live in, including reducing poverty.


Related Graphs

There were large declines in absolute inequalities in alcohol deaths in the first decade of the 21st century, but these have stalled and inequalities remain large

Hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption increases as area deprivation decreases

Inequalities in childhood obesity risk at the start of school have widened over the past decade