Messages about the health effects of smoking, drinking and eating junk food are less effective among the poorest in society, according to a new report.
The Kings Fund said public health initiatives are working, but are failing to have an impact among lower socio-economic groups.
It identified changes in the clustering of four key lifestyle behaviours – smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise – between 2003 and 2008.
However, almost all the improvement has been among higher socio-economic and better educated groups, exacerbating health inequalities.
David Buck, Senior Fellow at The King's Fund and the lead author of the report, said the lack of progress among lower socio-economic and educational groups is worrying.
"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 focused on single behaviours," he said.
Harry MacMillan, Chief Executive of MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition...Do it) an organisation that runs free healthy lifestyle programmes for children aged 2-13 and their families, said those most in need of practical support are missing out.
“Areas of public health like obesity must be tackled at the root, with a focus on supporting poorer and more deprived communities to develop life-long healthy habits," he said.
“Giving families access to free information and support about healthy living, through evidence-based courses such as MEND, is an effective and value for money approach to improve public health and reduce health inequalities."
Mr MacMillan added:
“We hope that these figures and recent calls to create a level playing field for all children as an Olympic legacy - will provide a renewed focus for the government to ensure that all children across the UK have the same opportunities and healthy start in life that they deserve.”
The report found that the proportion of the population engaging in three or four of these behaviours fell by 8% over the period from 33% to 25%.
However, the proportion of manual workers and people with no qualifications engaging in all four behaviours remained unchanged.
As a result, the gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups has widened – those 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.