The rot sets in from the age of five as children of both sexes spend increasing amounts of time in front of the television, eating the wrong foods and getting fat. By their early teens they are experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol, spending more hours slouched in darkened rooms and storing up future health problems. By their early twenties, over 40 per cent are regular smokers and more than 20 per cent are overweight.
The survey of almost 20,000 people aged from two to 24 is the most extensive undertaken of the age group.
It shows that the "health gap" between rich and poor begins in infancy and widens through childhood and adolescence into early adulthood.
Professor Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, said the findings should ring alarm bells among the young. "That is the stage at which the foundations for a healthy life are laid," he said.
Professor Donaldson denied that the survey demonstrated the failure of government efforts over the past decade to persuade young people to eattheir greens, walk to school instead of going by car and decline drink and drugs. "I wouldn't see it as evidence of a failure of public health programmes but of the need to re-focus them," he said. "It is a risk-taking age group. We cannot abolish all the behaviour, even should we want to. The important thing is to ensure that it is not carried through into adult life."
The findings demonstrated the need to act early to prevent young people developing the bad habits that could turn them into chronic invalids later in life.
Too much effort and too many resources were expended on treating the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles rather than changing the lifestyles themselves. "We need to be upstream preventing people falling in, than going downstream and pulling them out," Professor Donaldson said.
A White Paper expected early in the new year will set out the Government's plans for promoting public health and will suggest ways of reducing health inequalities which begin in the earliest years. The new survey provides a benchmark against which future progress will be measured, Professor Donaldson said.
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