When Labour came to power in 1997, the health gap between the north and south of the country was among the first challenges it pledged to tackle.

Ministers repeatedly cited the gap in life expectancy between people living in inner-city Manchester and the Surrey stockbroker belt as an example of the unacceptable inequality in health between rich and poor.

Figures published yesterday by the Department of Health revealed that, despite almost a decade of government initiatives, the health gap between the North and the South is the widest on record and is growing. On average, women live a year longer and men two years longer in the South.

Although life expectancy is increasing for all groups, the improvement is greater among the better off. If you live north of a line from Birmingham to the Wash you are more likely to die before your time.

On lung cancer, heart disease, obesity, diet, smoking, teenage pregnancy and exercise, the high-earning, bicycling residents of the South do better than the non vegetable-eating, hard- drinking northerners.

The Government has failed to meet its target of a 10 per cent reduction in the gap in life expectancy between the most deprived areas and the England average. The gap widened from 1.8 per cent to 1.9 per cent among women and remained static at 2.6 per cent among men, between 1995-97 and 2002-04.

Poverty is a key reason. The proportion of the people living in the most deprived areas is more than seven times greater in the North-east than in the South-east. Fewer vegetables are eaten in the North, people are heavier, smoke more and die more frequently from lung cancer or heart disease caused by smoking. Children are more likely to die in infancy and have poorer teeth.

More people than a decade ago rate themselves as in poor health and the proportion is almost twice as high in the North-east as in the South-east. The one bright note is that, as cancer and heart deaths have fallen, the gap between the most deprived areas and the rest has narrowed.

Launching the Health Profile for England, Caroline Flint, the Public Health minister, said she wanted the NHS to be geared as much towards preventative work as treatment, with town planners, businesses and individuals co-operating. "What we need to do is focus on those areas of the country that still face the biggest health challenges ... We are learning the lessons of what has and has not worked in influencing the choices people make about their health. Only knowing this can we be more effective."

Peter Hollins, the chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: "If the Government is serious about addressing the growing rates of obesity, and we believe it is, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and truly commit to a preventive approach to health.