Risk factors

Health risk factors are attributes, characteristics or exposures that increase the likelihood of a person developing a disease or health disorder. In many cases, individuals can modify risk factors such as smoking, sun exposure or physical activity. Biomedical risk factors (for example overweight) are bodily states that are often influenced by behavioural risk factors. Together these risk factors are referred to as being either potentially avoidable or modifiable and they are distinct from other types of risk factors, such as genetic pre-dispositions, which are not generally modifiable.

Expenditure due to modifiable risk factors in this report refers to health system spending on a burden of disease condition that can be attributed to people having a particular risk factor e.g. history of smoking. It is not spending on addressing the risk factor itself i.e. not the amount of money spent on trying to reduce tobacco consumption across the Australian population.

In this report 20 risk factors have been identified as contributing to disease burden. These are:

  • air pollution
  • alcohol use
  • bullying victimisation
  • child abuse and neglect
  • dietary risks
  • high blood plasma glucose
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • high sun exposure
  • illicit drug use
  • impaired kidney function
  • intimate partner violence
  • iron deficiency
  • low birth weight and short gestation
  • low bone mineral density
  • occupational exposures and hazards
  • overweight (including obesity)
  • physical inactivity
  • tobacco use
  • unsafe sex.

For information on the methods used to derive risk factor spending estimates, refer to the Technical notes of this report and the Australian Burden of Disease Study: Methods and Supplementary material 2018.

The true percentage of spending on conditions that is due to all modifiable risk factors is unknown. For those conditions for which attribution is possible, $24 billion (39%) of the estimated spending in 2018–19 is attributable to these potentially avoidable risk factors. The risk factor that contributed the highest share of this spending is overweight (including obesity) at $4.3 billion.

Key findings

  • The top 5 risk factors contributing to health spending were: overweight (including obesity) ($4.3 billion); tobacco use ($3.3 billion); high blood plasma glucose ($3.2 billion); alcohol use ($2.1 billion); impaired kidney function ($1.9 billion).
  • Risk factors contributed to 88% of total estimated spending on coronary heart disease and 74% of total estimated spending on stroke.
  • High blood pressure contributed to around $470 million of spending for coronary heart disease.
  • Half (50%) of the estimated spending for bowel cancer can be attributed to modifiable risk factors.
  • Two-thirds (66%) of the estimated spending on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be attributed to tobacco use.

The interactive data visualisations below show the health system spending in 2018–19 that can be attributed to different risk factors by disease group and condition at the national level. Also shown is the share of spending on the burden of disease conditions that can be attributed to risk factors. The data used to create the visualisations can also be& downloaded as an Excel workbook.