New health strategy takes on big killers

The cost of smoking, obesity and the harmful consumption of alcohol to our health system and to workplace productivity is crippling. It is the main focus of the new National Preventative Health Strategy.

The figures are mind-blowing. The overall cost to the health system from these three risk factors is $6 billion a year, while lost productivity is estimated at $13 billion.

The new national strategy, launched by the Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon in early September, recommends a range of interventions aimed at reducing the chronic disease burden associated with obesity, tobacco and alcohol. The strategy will be co-ordinated and driven by a new National Prevention Agency.

Behind the statistics are human stories and the strategy sets ambitious targets to prevent the premature and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Australians. They include:

  • stabilising obesity at current levels – preventing the premature death of half a million people between now and 2050;
  • reducing the prevalence of daily smoking to 10% or less – preventing the premature death of 300,000 Australians between now and 2020;
  • reducing the number of Australians who drink at high risk levels from 20% to 14% – leading to 330,000 fewer hospitalisations and 1.5 million fewer bed days at a cost-saving of nearly $2 billion to the national health sector by 2020.

Prevention works

Preventative strategies have been hugely successful in Australia when they have been implemented.

In the 1950s, three-quarters of Australian men smoked. Now less than one-fifth of men smoke and deaths in men from lung cancer and lung diseases have plummeted.

Similarly, there has been a dramatic reduction in road deaths – 80% since 1970 – following the introduction of seat belts.

The Taskforce that compiled the strategy concedes that previous attempts to deal with the impact of alcohol, smoking and obesity were not fully implemented or implemented at all. It proposes following a similar pathway to campaigns to reduce road trauma and smoking when ‘progressive, staged and comprehensive actions have been the hallmarks of success’.

The report was warmly welcomed by the Australian Nursing Federation and medical organisations.

The staggering cost of grog, smoking and obesity

  • In 2004-2005, the harmful consumption of alcohol cost $1.6 billion through crime, $1.9 billion because of health effects, $3.5 billion in lost workplace productivity and $2.2 billion from road trauma.
  • Around half of the 2.9 million Australian adults who currently smoke on a daily basis will die early – half in middle age. Smoking-related illness costs up to $5.7 billion a year in lost productivity.
  • The increased prevalence of obesity will see type 2 diabetes as a leading disease burden for males and females by 2023. The health care costs will soar during that period from $1.3 billion to $8 billion.