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Fighting for everyone to have healthier lungs

Adam Croom, policy and external affairs officer at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, explores the ways in which health inequalities are particularly acute for those with lung conditions.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been clear that some groups have been affected more than others. A new light has been shone on the inequalities that still persist in our society, and lung health plays a major part in this.

Any of us can be affected by lung disease: around 12 million people in the UK have a lung condition, and many more are affected through caring for loved ones. However, the sad truth is that the risk is much higher for some groups of people than others. Lung disease is strongly linked to poverty and disadvantage. People in the poorest areas of the country are more than twice as likely to die from lung cancer or COPD than those in the richest areas. They are also more likely to suffer from uncontrolled asthma, which is fuelled by difficulties affording prescription charges, resulting in potentially life-threatening asthma attacks.

The NHS records data on the gap in early deaths between the richest and poorest for different major disease areas. Shockingly, lung disease is the only area where this is going in the wrong direction and the gap is widening. The most obvious cause of this is smoking – smoking rates are at an all-time low but concentrated in certain groups. 26% of people in ‘routine and manual’ occupations smoke, compared with just 10% of those in ‘managerial’ jobs.

However, smoking is by no means the only cause. Cold and damp homes, exposure to outdoor air pollution and unsafe working environments also contribute. People on lower incomes often have inferior access to care and treatment to help manage their illness.

There has never been a more important time to address inequalities in lung disease. People with chronic lung disease, especially when it is poorly controlled, are at higher risk of serious illness as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has shown like never before how important it is that we all have healthy, resilient lungs.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are delighted to be founding members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance. By working together, we hope to develop a strategy for the social determinants of health that will tackle these inequalities head on. It’s over 10 years since Sir Michael Marmot published his groundbreaking report Fair Society, Healthy Lives. Now is the time to make his vision a reality, and fight together to level up prevention, care and treatment of lung disease for all of us.

This is one of a series of blogs to mark the launch of the Inequalities in Health Alliance, a coalition of organisations who have come together to campaign for a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities.