Health inequality is estimated to cost around 1.4% of GDP, prompting calls for investment in social and health services.
This comes at a time when governments are looking to curtail public spending, something outgoing EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has warned would be counterproductive (EurActiv 06/10/09).
The new report, published as part of the EU-funded 'Determine' project on the socio-economic determinants of health, says economic arguments should be used to lobby politicians to direct funds towards health inequality projects.
"Targeted investment to address health inequalities by action on social determinants of health is more cost effective than paying later for the consequences of these inequalities," the report says.
This implies that addressing health inequalities is not only a matter of social justice but also contributes to growth and productivity, according to the authors.
The WHO has estimated that 50% of the growth differential between rich and poor countries is due to ill-health and shorter life expectancy. Increasing life expectancy at birth by 10% could increase economic growth by 0.35% per year, it says.
There is also evidence that the economies of developed countries are boosted by closing the health inequality gap, according to the authors of the report.
Yawning gaps in health status exist within and between EU member states, leading to variations of up to eight years in life expectancy. Income, education, living and working conditions, health behaviour and access to healthcare are cited as contributing factors to lifespan.
The EU executive last year announced a series of steps designed to tackle health inequalities in Europe. It promised to strengthen data collection and foster best practice between counties.
Commissioner Vassiliou also pledged to use EU funds to improve the health of the worst off and narrow health gaps between regions by boosting primary care facilities, water and sanitation services.