Opinion: Why investors need to come together to tackle health inequalities in the UK

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October 14 – Healthy economies depend on healthy populations. Covid-19 has highlighted this in sharp relief. But even in the wake of the pandemic, poor health is cutting short millions of lives. In addition, the cost of living crisis is a health crisis. Cold, damp homes make you sick. When people have to choose between heating and eating, their health suffers. Insecurity and financial worries are as important to health as the impact of living on a low income.

Health inequalities are growing and this comes at a high cost. Widespread diseases not only harm the lives of millions of people, but also have serious economic consequences. It is already estimated that poor health costs 15% of global GDP. In the UK, people in the most deprived areas die more than a decade earlier than people in more affluent areas. Less than one in ten British men manage to retire in good health.

Just like the climate crisis, ill health has become a systemic risk that investors cannot ignore. Without good health we cannot have prosperity.

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Our health is a combination of three things. It’s our biology and genetics. It is our choices and actions. And it is the product of the environment in which we live, grow up and work. By far the greatest factor in our health is the latter. Up to 80% of people’s health is shaped by their environment. As a result, investors have tremendous impact on people’s health through the companies they invest in – companies that can impact the health of their employees, customers and society at large.

But health is a blind spot for many investors. Many overlook the impact and potential for positive impact they can have. Health largely plays no role in asset managers’ risk ratings and sustainability indices. This even applies to many responsible investors: British American Tobacco was awarded the third highest ESG rating in the FTSE 100 by financial market experts Refinitiv in 2021.

Ambulances are parked outside the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Center following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London, Britain, January 1, 2021. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

At Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation, our £1 billion foundation has a dual mandate to advance health equity and generate attractive financial returns. By prioritizing health, investors can help lay the foundations for a healthier society. Helping people lead healthier lives helps companies access a healthier job market and ultimately increases their bottom line. This would add £10 trillion to global GDP by 2040.

Fortunately, a positive change is already beginning. For example, in 2019 we partnered with ShareAction on the Healthy Markets initiative, an alliance of 35 investors with £7.5 trillion in assets under management to improve people’s health by increasing access to affordable, healthy food . Today, 65% of the UK grocery market has targets to increase the proportion of healthier food in their portfolios. And global manufacturers like Danone and Unilever have pledged to report on the health of their sales using government-recognized definitions, while Premier Foods has gone even further, pledging to double its sales of healthier products by 2030.

A number of investors are already taking steps to support the necessary change. Legal and General has called for an “H for Health” to be included in the ESG approach, while CCLA Investment Management has launched a benchmark for mental health companies. Investors hire companies to help them improve the health of their products, pay living wages, and offer employees secure contracts, flexible work hours, and sick pay. These are just a few examples of what health prioritization looks like – but they are still too few and far-flung. We all need to do more.

To help investors understand how to build healthier economies, the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation has partnered with ShareAction, the Health Foundation and a growing group of responsible investors in the global alliance of Long-Term Investors in People’s Health . This is a new and ambitious initiative designed to help investors prioritize health. It will demonstrate health leadership, shaping guidelines and best practices, driving policy discussions and influencing better reporting of data.

Good health is an asset to society and the economy. Now is the time to include people’s health in investment policies. A clear commitment to investing in a healthier society should be the goal of all forward-thinking investors.

A customer buys vegetables at a Tesco Extra supermarket in Watford, north of London August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias under the Trust Principles. Sustainable Business Review, part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Kieron Boyle

Kieron Boyle is Executive Director of Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation and works closely with the leadership team and Board of Trustees to advance their mission to build a healthier society. He is also Chief Executive of Impact on Urban Health, a programmatic working body in which the foundation works with businesses, governments and communities to find new ways to address health inequalities in cities.

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