Our lungs have for many years been a clear victim of inequality and poverty. If you live in the poorest parts of the country, you are seven times more likely to die from lung disease than if you live in the wealthiest. Take chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), which kills around 30,000 people a year in the UK. We know that people in the poorest communities are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop COPD than those in the most affluent areas and that structural inequalities like damp housing, smoking and exposure to air pollution play an undeniable part in how ill you will be and, ultimately, your survival.
The current cost-of-living crisis is only deepening health inequalities. Rising energy, travel and food prices affect us all, but people with lung conditions are particularly vulnerable. One in five people in the UK will develop a lung condition in their lifetime such as asthma, pneumonia or COPD. People with these conditions tell us, day in and day out, that fighting for breath is terrifying. An attack or flare-up can feel like a belt around your chest. You can’t pay your way out of a lung condition but money can help you pay for more comfortable housing, medicines and machinery that will improve your quality of life, allowing you to live healthier and for longer.
People with some other chronic diseases, like diabetes, don’t have to pay for prescription charges but people with asthma and other lung conditions aren’t so fortunate. As we look towards winter when temperatures plummet, cold homes can cause life-threatening exacerbations – we are extremely concerned this will lead to more hospitalisations and, in the worst cases, death. Over time, the impacts of mould and damp caused by people being unable to heat their homes can also affect their lung health.
But we don’t need to wait until winter to see this crisis in action. Since the cost of living hit the news agenda in April, views of our advice pages on financial support and lung conditions have shot up. Traffic to our information about benefits and severe asthma has increased fivefold. Calls to our helpline have also increased by almost 150 per cent from April to May of this year. It’s highly likely things are going to get even worse when the cold weather and flu season hits, both of which can make lung conditions worse, and will be compounded by the rising cost of living.
[See also: How UK energy bills are set to surge again]
It’s unsurprising more people are coming to us about welfare benefits. Previous research by our charity found that around half a million people with asthma in England have had to choose between paying for their life-saving asthma medication and other necessities including food, bills and school uniform for their children.
Cathy, a mum-of-three, lost her 19-year-old daughter Holly to an asthma attack in 2016. Holly was on a low income and struggled to pay for her medication. She rationed how much medicine she took, resulting in a fatal asthma attack. Cathy says that her daughter would still be alive today if prescription charges hadn’t discouraged her from regularly taking her medication. How many more grieving parents like Cathy will there be as the cost-of-living crisis bites and people are forced to make stark choices?
There are many other hidden costs to life with a lung condition. Frequent medical appointments and hospital stays can mean more time off work which may not be paid, and travel costs to get to and from the doctors or hospital. For patients living with conditions that require mains-powered oxygen concentrators at home, soaring electricity costs are of huge concern. While the NHS reimburses some of these costs, there is a wait and not everyone is eligible such as those who use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines or nebulisers.
At Asthma and Lung UK, we are doing all we can to support the thousands of people who come to us for advice and support with health information or financial guidance. We are campaigning alongside other charities as members of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, asking for more financial support for people with lung conditions to keep their homes heated this winter, and as part of the Prescription Charges Coalition to stop people with chronic lung conditions having to pay for their medicines. But we don’t have a magic wand. The UK already has the worst record on lung deaths in the whole of Western Europe. If the government doesn’t provide more help for people with lung conditions, millions are at risk of being priced out of breathing.