J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2012-202064
  • Editorial

Health inequalities: the need to move beyond bad behaviours

  1. Gareth Williams4
  1. 1Evaluation of Social Interventions Programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow, UK
  2. 2Public Health and Health Policy, NHS Lothian, Edinburgh, UK
  3. 3Global Public Health Unit, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  4. 4Cardiff Institute of Society and Health, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Srinivasa Vittal Katikireddi, Evaluation of Social Interventions Programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, 4 Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow G12 8RZ, UK; vkatikireddi{at}
  • Received 14 October 2012
  • Revised 31 January 2013
  • Accepted 17 February 2013
  • Published Online First 13 March 2013

Health inequalities have been observed internationally across a number of dimensions (including, eg, socioeconomic position, ethnicity and gender) and have persisted over time.1 The lack of progress in addressing them has disappointed many within public health, particularly given an apparent prioritisation of health inequalities in UK policy.2 Building on recent research highlighting the limitations of addressing health inequalities by trying to change health behaviours of individuals,3 we argue that attempts to tackle health inequalities are impeded by the current framing that dominates much public health policy and research. We suggest some alternative ways forward.

Policy analysts have drawn attention to a recurrent policy emphasis on health behaviours in the UK, despite acknowledgment among decision makers that wider social and economic factors are important.4 This approach has been reinforced by researchers focusing on addressing health inequalities by modifying health behaviours via individual-level interventions, which do not fully take into account the impact of the social and economic environments in which people live over time.5 This preoccupation is illustrated by a recent King's Fund study that reported increasing inequality in what the authors call the ‘clustering of unhealthy behaviours over time’ in England.6 Even when governments commit to addressing social determinants of health, specific actions and interventions often revert to trying to modify individuals’ behaviours. Hilary Graham describes this process as follows: A recurrent slippage occurs as the policy statements move from overarching principles to strategic objectives, with a broad concept of determinants giving way to a narrower focus on individual risk factors.7

While there is clearly a role for addressing health behaviours as part of efforts to reduce health inequalities, this ‘lifestyle drift’ neglects …

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