Public Health Scotland has published a rapid assessment on the health impacts of the rising cost of living. Margaret Douglas, Consultant in Public Health, discusses what this could mean for the long term health of communities in Scotland and what can be done to ease the impact.
Across Scotland, household budgets are being squeezed by the rising cost of living, with essentials like food and fuel seeing the largest price increases. In our assessment of the likely health impacts of the rising cost of living, we estimate that if the effects continue in the long term, the premature death rate could increase by up to 6% across the Scottish population. As low-income communities are most affected, inequalities in health will also increase.
There are several ways in which rising costs can affect health, such as:
- living in a cold damp home;
- being unable to afford a nutritious and varied diet;
- lacking affordable transport to get to work or access essential services;
- generating anxiety;
- worsening personal debt.
The mental health effects can strain family relationships and lead some people resort to or become more dependent on substance use or gambling. The infographic below summarises the wide range of impacts arising from rising costs.
The long term effects on health, particularly for children and young people, are even more worrying.
Low income families already spend a high proportion of their income on food. Children in families that cannot consistently afford a nutritious diet suffer a higher risk of health conditions like anaemia and adverse effects on their development and education.
Children living in cold, damp homes are more likely to become unwell and miss school because of it. It is also more difficult to study if the family is crowded into a single heated space.
Increased tension and conflict within the household could affect family interactions and increase the risk of abuse and neglect.
Pressures on family finances could lead some young people to miss out on activities outside the home or the opportunity to go on to further or higher education.
The cost of living crisis follows the effects of austerity, the covid-19 pandemic and rising economic inequality in Scotland. These events have all affected the same groups of people and have also reduced the resilience and capacity of public services to respond to their needs.
What can be done to mitigate the health impacts of rising costs?
Preventing poverty is the key. The top priority must be to increase and protect incomes and reduce costs for those people most at risk. This includes:
- supporting income maximisation services;
- debt relief;
- protecting employment;
- fair work practices;
- flexible work to reduce childcare costs;
- reducing costs to access key services.
It is important to protect the public services required to address the wide range of needs identified and to avoid stigmatising individuals and communities affected by the cost of living.
Wider measures should include improving the energy efficiency and quality of housing, and supporting public and active transport to reduce the impact of rising fuel prices, both now and into the future.
To prevent long term effects for children and young people will require support for families and focused efforts to reduce educational inequalities. This could include:
- actions to support school attendance;
- increasing uptake and coverage of free school meals;
- free extracurricular activities and homework support;
- uniform policies that do not require badged items.
Prioritising these actions now is essential to prevent poor health and increased health inequalities in the future.