Let that sink in for a second. Over the 46-mile distance between Scotland’s two biggest cities years disappear from the average person’s life. Get on a plane and fly south for an hour and the outcomes are even more pronounced. A baby born in leafy Hampstead in London will be expected to live 12 more years than one born in Glasgow. That is a national scandal.
During the SNP leadership debate on BBC Scotland, all the candidates told me eradicating poverty is their number one priority. Saying it is one thing but achieving it is much more difficult. Down the years, politicians from every party have tried to tackle lower life expectancy in the west of Scotland. It even has a name, the Glasgow Effect, but solutions have proved elusive because it is complex and stretches across generations.
Tackling poverty is key. People trapped in poor circumstances have limited choices in life and little incentive to change. Reducing income inequality will help but it isn’t the whole answer. It’s all very well to compare life expectancy in poor parts of Glasgow with prosperous parts of London but even when the comparison is with other de-industrialised conurbations, the result is grim. Glaswegians have a 30 per cent higher risk of dying before they are 65 than even people in Liverpool and Manchester, places with similar stories of manufacturing decline.
Analysis shows the biggest causes of premature deaths are cancer, heart disease and strokes, along with so-called ‘despair conditions’ arising from smoking and alcohol consumption. This is where we find cause for hope.
A new study showed the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing scheme has been linked to a 13 per cent drop in alcohol-related deaths in the past year. Just as the indoor smoking ban led to a dramatic drop in lung cancer deaths, direct intervention can make a difference.
As so often, if we want inspiration we only need to look to Scandinavia. Fifty years ago, northern Finland had one of the world’s highest rates of heart disease, linked to diet and lifestyle. Government action was focussed on cutting smoking, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, and working with manufacturers to reduce sodium and fat levels in food. A vast public health campaign was undertaken and outreach workers went from door to door, hammering the message home.
Within ten years, smoking rates dropped from 52 to 31 per cent and average life expectancy for men rose by seven years. Rural northern Finland is very different from urban Glasgow but the scale of the change achieved suggests anything is possible when there is agreement on a course of action.
The issues around life expectancy in the west of Scotland won’t be solved overnight but neither can we just accept they are facts of life that cannot be tackled. This is about people’s lives ending far too soon.
It will take huge investment in public health campaigns, better fitness facilities, massive outreach programmes and probably further legislation around junk food and alcohol but the Finnish example shows change can happen and possibly sooner than we think. Where there is a will, there is a way.