The report Clustering of unhealthy behaviours over time: implications for policy and practice found that the number of people living unhealthily has fallen, but the gap between rich and poor has widened.
Researchers used data from the Health Survey for England to analyse changes in the clustering of four key lifestyle behaviours – smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise – between 2003 and 2008.
The report found that the proportion of people engaging in three or four unhealthy lifestyle behaviours fell by 8% between 2003 and 2008 (from 33% to 25%).
According to researchers, the finding suggested that public health initiatives had been important in improving health among the population as a whole.
However researchers also found that health initiatives had not helped to improve the lifestyles of lower socio-economic groups.
The report said that the proportion of manual workers and people with no qualifications engaging in all four key unhealthy behaviours remained unchanged.
As a result, the gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups has widened.
Researchers found that in 2008, people with no qualifications were five times more likely to engage in all four behaviours than better educated groups, compared to only three times as likely in 2003.
The report suggested that in the future, health initiatives should focus more on tackling multiple behaviours and targeting those in lower socio-economic and educational groups.
Senior fellow at the King’s Fund and lead author of the report David Buck said: ‘Our research highlights an unsung public health success - a reduction in multiple unhealthy lifestyle behaviours among the general population. However, the lack of progress among lower socio-economic and educational groups is worrying and has exacerbated health inequalities.
‘If the government is serious about improving the health of the poorest fastest, it must focus on reducing multiple unhealthy risky behaviours among the poorest groups, rather than only relying on focusing on single behaviours.’