The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland believes public health awareness campaigns have had limited impact on diet and fitness and obesity rates have continued to spiral as a result.
Now the colleges – which represent physicians and surgeons – are to launch a new “anti-obesity” alliance to develop a new approach to tackling the condition, which is linked to illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Options include doctors challenging patients about their weight and eating habits and the creation of local food co-operatives to promote healthier diets and the formation of more exercise groups.
Figures show that two-thirds of adults and a third of children in Scotland are now overweight, with the cost of obesity to society standing at more than £457 million a year.
In addition, research reveals that two-thirds of men and women are not doing enough physical activity to benefit their health – despite most believing they are getting enough. In Scotland, around 2,500 people die prematurely as a result of physical inactivity, according to government statistics.
A major conference on Thursday will hear that experts believe that while progress has been made in reducing illness caused by alcohol and smoking, health campaigns on obesity and exercise have had limited impact. They said action was essential to reverse the rising trend in weight gain and prevent growing levels of ill health.
Conference organiser Dr Andrew Fraser, representing the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said people tended to think their weight and fitness levels were fine, but they were usually mistaken. While health campaigns had raised awareness, they had not resulted in actual reductions in weight or increased activity.
“As such, the impact of this approach has been limited and for too many people obesity and inactivity is becoming a lifestyle choice,” said Fraser, the director of public health science at Health Scotland.
“But obesity is a direct cause of a range of life-limiting and life-reducing illnesses including a range of cancers, heart disease and diabetes. It means people cannot work, and is also a cause of very significant financial cost to a resource-limited NHS.”
One problem was that many people who would be classed as clinically obese would not think they were overweight because of the trend towards weight gain in Scotland. “People seem to equate obesity with much more extreme forms,” he said. “But that misses the point for the ‘average Scot’.
“Within the last decade waist sizes in Scotland have increased by two inches and are set to do so again in the next decade if we are not careful.”
A number of major reports in the last few months have suggested measures such as encouraging health staff to lose weight to be a good example to patients, removing harmful fats from foods and taxing sugary drinks. The new alliance hopes to examine all these measures and advise the public and Scottish Government on what will deliver the greatest benefits.
“We do not have any easy answers at this stage and instead are looking to build consensus and influence wider cultural change,” Fraser said.
But the expert said action could be taken on an individual, community and national level involving governments. “It could include less bashful questioning of people’s lifestyles when they come to see a doctor,” he said.
“As health professionals we also need to encourage patients to get together in groups and, for example, put together food co-operatives and walking groups.”
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum campaign group, urged the new alliance to focus on prevention of obesity as a priority.
“Everything at the moment is predicated on slimming overweight people down to a healthy size,” he said. “But we should be putting a lot of effort into making them not become obese in the first place.
“The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical in making sure they get the right start in life. There is very little work being done in this area.”
The conference will hear from speakers including Sports Minister Shona Robison and Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns. Speaking ahead of the event, Robison said: “The challenge of obesity and physical inactivity are major public health issues for Scotland.
“Obesity levels are rising internationally, and Scotland is not alone in facing what has the potential to be one of the most difficult health challenges that we will see in our lifetime.
“If obesity levels continue to rise, the cost to the Scottish economy will be around £3 billion. I firmly believe that increasing our physical activity has the potential to make a significant contribution to achieving a healthy weight.”