Objectives: There is strong evidence that a high consumption of fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of developing many cancers. This study examined the economic consequences for the healthcare sector if people followed the recommendations and increased their intake of fruit and vegetables.
Design: A life table was used to describe a base case population with respect to life expectancy, cancer incidence and healthcare costs. Relative risks of cancer for a high versus a low intake of fruit and vegetables were obtained from the literature and were used to simulate populations with a higher intake of fruit and vegetables. The empirical data consist of a 20% sample of the Danish population that was followed from 1993 to 1997. Civil registration numbers were used to link various computerised registers, in order to describe each individual in the sample in terms of morbidity, mortality and healthcare costs.
Results: The average daily intake of fruit and vegetables was assumed to be approximately 250 g for the general Danish population. Simulated intakes of 400 g and 500 g increased the life expectancy by 0.8 and 1.3 years, respectively. In addition, it was estimated that 19% and 32% of the cancer incidence could be prevented. The aggregate healthcare costs remained stable, as the resources saved due to a lower cancer incidence were offset by healthcare costs imposed by the fact that healthy people live longer and require more healthcare. However, the variations across age groups and health sectors were substantial.
Discussion: The study adopted a healthcare sector perspective. Only costs from hospitalisation and primary care were included in the calculations. The costs of changing people's dietary habits, i.e. education, information and promotion as well as other costs that would be relevant from a societal perspective, have not been taken into account. Furthermore, the transition from one level of intake to another is not the focus of the analysis, although it might take decades to observe the full effect of the dietary changes.
Conclusion: Empirical evidence suggests that a considerable fraction of all cancer incidences can be prevented by a higher intake of fruit and vegetables. That may result in improved public health (gain in life years) at no additional cost to the healthcare sector.