Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, the successor to the Health Protection Agency, said local government was 'way and ahead' the best place to improve the public's health and tackle 'big killers', such as alcohol misuse.
Local authorities will be handed control of public health from April 2013 under the government's reforms, when Public Health England will begin its work.
Mr Selbie, who has worked in the NHS for more than 30 years, said the NHS had, on its own, been unable to solve the problems of inequalities in health and life expectancy.
Speaking at the City Health 2012 conference in London this week, Mr Selbie said: 'Although we can look with great pride at what we've been able to do as a health system, there's a lot we haven't been able to do.
'The biggest part of how we address inequalities... won't be about what the NHS offers, it will be about how we come together to address these big killers - tobacco, alcohol.'
He added: 'The NHS can make a contribution but it cannot make the biggest difference. The biggest difference will come through how we work together at a local level.'
Mr Selbie said people in England 'can't continue' to have their life expectancy determined largely by their place of birth.
Differences in life expectancy can be as high as 15 years between some neighbouring areas, he said. To improve this councils need to target factors such as employment and homes - the determinants of poor health, he argued.
The remit of public health extends beyond local government or NHS budgets, he said.
'Over the course of the next few months and years we hope.... to put the public's health where it should be, which is at the centre of everything.'
'This is about every single part of every single budget thinking about the public's health,' he said.