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LONDON (Reuters) - Radical cuts in social welfare spending by governments intent on reducing budget deficits can cost lives as well as cause economic pain, according to a study published on Friday.
British researchers found that levels of social spending in Europe are strongly associated with risks of premature death, particularly from diseases linked to wealth and social circumstances such as heart attacks and alcohol-related illness.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers calculated that for approximately every 80 euros ($107) cut from social welfare spending per person, alcohol-related deaths would rise by about 2.8 percent and heart disease deaths by around 1.2 percent.
The global recession and financial crisis have driven many governments in Europe to make drastic budget cuts to try to reduce ballooning deficits.
Some, like Britain, have ring-fenced health spending with a view to keeping voters on their side. But the study suggested that while such governments may think they are safeguarding the population's health by protecting healthcare budgets, they may be ignoring the health dangers implicit in welfare cuts.
"This report reveals that ordinary people may be paying the ultimate price for budget cuts -- potentially costing them their lives," the authors, led by sociologist David Stuckler from the Oxford University, wrote in the study.
Heart disease is already the number one killer in Europe, the United States and other wealthy nations, while alcohol-related illnesses rank at number eight in the World Health Organization's top 10 leading causes of death worldwide.
Previous studies have found that in developed nations, both heart disease and alcohol-related health problems are more prevalent among people in deprived communities.
Stuckler's team looked at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data on welfare spending in 15 European countries between 1980 to 2005.
These included programs to provide support to families and children, to help the unemployed get jobs, and support for people with disabilities -- all of which could plausibly affect health, the researchers explained.
Analyzing trends in the data, they found that when social spending was high, death rates fell, but when they were low, death rates rose substantially.
"Health and social welfare programs appear to be a key determinant of future population health that should be taken into account in ongoing economic debates," Stuckler wrote.
Editing by Noah Barkin