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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 01:02 GMT 02:02 UK
'No time for a cream cake'
By Mark Easton
BBC Home Editor

First the good news. England's health is getting better.

We are living longer.

More than a million of us have given up smoking in the last eight years. We are less likely to suffer an early death from cancer or heart disease. But this is no time for a celebratory cream cake.

Life expectancy around England

Thanks to the labours of official statisticians, we can now sit on a cloud and look down at England through public health spectacles.

And what we see is remarkably clear - if a bit depressing.

Take average life expectancy. For long life, you want to live south of a line stretching from the Wash to Hereford.

With a few exceptions in London and out along the Thames estuary, men on average live to their late seventies, women until their early 80s.

But for a belt of Northern England, loosely bounded by Blackpool and Liverpool in the west and Skegness and Scarborough in the east, it is a different story.

In Chelsea, women on average live to be 86. In Manchester, it is 78.

In Kingston upon Thames, men on average live to be 78. In Kingston upon Hull it is 73. Two hundred miles. Five to 10 years of life.

Why?

The map showing England's smokers presents a stark picture. The further north you go, the more people smoke. The one exception is London.

If we look at the obesity map, another startlingly clear picture. The fattest men live in Yorkshire and the Humber region.

Smoking deaths in England

For women, it is the West Midlands. Once again, something of a north/south divide.

Interestingly, London, despite significant inner-city deprivation, does not have an obesity problem.

Along with the maps, the official statisticians provide a European comparison for obesity, and pretty depressing reading it makes.

In pizza and pasta loving Italy, 8% are obese. In France it is 9%. Ireland, German and Spain about 12%.

Right at the bottom - the UK with 24% of the population clinically obese. We are, officially, the fattest country in Europe.

Poverty 'not the reason'

Dive down into the data and you can find astonishing detail about local authorities in England.

Information on 25 indicators of community well-being can be found through the NHS website at www.communityhealthprofiles.com.

Obesity rates around England

Click on, say, Uttlesford - a rural borough in East Anglia near Cambridge, and you discover a picture of health.

Yellow dots mean the area is significantly better than average in almost every respect: from GCSE results and violent crime to teenage pregnancy and obesity.

In Saffron Walden, the main town in Uttlesford, just one in six of the population is obese.

Now click on Boston - another rural borough in the east of England, and you find a sea of red dots.

Obesity figures

They smoke, they don't eat healthily and the men can expect to die five years earlier than their counterparts in Saffron Walden.

Almost one in three of the population in Boston is clinically obese - making it, officially, the fattest place in England.

The difference between the two market towns, both surrounded by fresh fruit and vegetables, cannot be put down simply to poverty.

There are plenty of places far more deprived than Boston which do not share its obesity problems.

Key players

What is intriguing about these maps is that they show that poor health is not as simple as poor people. It seems that how we live and how we die is cultural as much as economic.

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Which is why government is looking to use the same tricks advertisers employ to make us buy a sticky bun, to convince us to put the bun down.

"Social marketing" is the buzz-phrase and expect to hear a lot more about it.

Areas will be encouraged to gather together the key players in the locality - the head teacher, the supermarket manager, the chemist, the public health official, the manager of the local gym.

Perhaps 50 people will be recruited to put together a health marketing plan. The aim is to change what might be called the "social micro-climate" of an area.

It is well worth the effort.

If England can bring the worst health profiles up to the level of the best, it will mean longer, healthier, happier lives for millions of people.




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