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A widening European health divide…it’s enough to drive you to drink

news editor28 February 2012

Far from ‘closing the gap’ in life expectancy, health inequalities in Europe have deepened further. Drawing upon his forthcoming review of health inequalities in Europe, Michael Marmotargued that social inequalities, with their impact on life expectancy, should be at the top of the public agenda and we should place fairness at the heart of decision-making for health.

Integral to Marmot’s work is the graded relationship between social deprivation and a multitude of health outcomes. He reports that male life expectancy in the Russian Federation is 20 years less than in Iceland, but also highlights “huge differences within countries” and that “the gradient is increasing”.

Alcohol use: a cause or consequence of inequality?
What is driving the social gradient in health? Panel member Christopher Gerry stressed that “Alcohol matters”, and quoting Richard Peto said: “More than half of all deaths of people of working age in Russia are caused by alcohol.” But importantly, Gerry identified alcohol as just the proximate cause: “What makes people drink in the way that they do is the real question.”

Marmot was quick to distinguish between immediate causes and the underlying psychosocial mechanisms that drive unhealthy behaviours. In the case of Russia: “Some people are utterly convinced that alcohol plays a role, the main role” in health inequalities. But he disagreed, while acknowledging its role in violent deaths.

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