Britain has become a nation where being overweight is the norm, and urgent action is needed to reign in the bulging incidence of obesity, which could cost the economy a breath-taking £45 billion by 2050, a new report has found.

The hard-hitting findings by Foresight’s project Tackling Obesities: Future Choices predict that, by 2050, 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and about 25% of all children under 16 could be obese, presenting a huge healthcare challenge and underscoring the need to address the issue now.

The problem with obesity is that it significantly increases the risk of a range of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease but also cancer and arthritis, so its magnitude is far greater than the immediate complications of being overweight.

According to the report, today’s ‘obesogenic’ environment, “with its abundance of energy dense food, motorised transport and sedentary lifestyles”, is a huge factor in the rising numbers of obesity, and it claims people are getting heavier simply by living in our society today.

A ‘long-term commitment’

Turning this situation around is dependent on a long term, large-scale commitment, Foresight stresses. It has taken 30 years to get to the present situation, it says, and, even if the problem is addressed properly now, it will be least another 30 years before reductions in the associated diseases are seen.

Foresight insists that current policies, which are directed at the individual, will not be enough to fight the problem, and it calls for a “whole system approach”, from “the production and promotion of healthy diets to redesigning the built environment to promote walking, together with wider cultural changes to shift societal values around food and activity.”

Dr Colin Waine, Chair of the National Obesity Forum, told PharmaTimes that the NOF “warmly welcomes the publication of Foresight’s report”, which is extremely comprehensive and sets out a clear strategy for tackling the current epidemic.”

Rightly, he explained, the report emphasises prevention, but the NOF feels very strongly that, in the foreseeable future, we should still target treatments for those at high risk from related diseases such as diabetes.

“I hope that there will be a cross-department, or better cross-political party, group with the clout to take the proposals forward,” he concluded.

In a ministerial statement yesterday Health Secretary Alan Johnson promised to establish a cross-governmental ministerial group to help combat the spiralling problem, but he failed specify any actions in response to Foresight’s report.

Shifting target

Moreover, he confirmed that the government is reneging on its original target set in 2004 to cut the number of children obese in half by 2010, setting its sights on 2020 instead. Although the target was deemed unachievable by many, putting it back by 10 years has sparked concern among experts.

The British Heart Foundation, for one, has slammed the government for “quietly shelving” its targets for childhood obesity for “a softer, more distant one,” and Waine agrees that the target, which now aims to get obesity levels back to what they were in 2000, “could do with rethinking”.

“Setting new targets for 2020 is presumably a tactic to buy the government more time to get its act together, but it risks making the problem seem too distant to force through the necessary bold measures in this term of government,” commented Peter Hollins, chief executive of the BHF. “It’s not as if this crisis is new – we have been warning of its severity and urgency for years but no coordinated cross-government strategy has been formed,” he added, calling for the “pace of change” to be quickened.

GP role

Earlier this week, the Department announced a new scheme to a new scheme to help spur patients leading sedentary lifestyles into getting some exercise to shake-up their well-being.

The 12-month pilot will initially see eight GP surgeries in five London primary care trusts - Islington, Wandsworth, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Haringey – taking a more active role in promoting exercise as a means of boosting health.

Under the Physical Activity Care Pathway doctors will assess patients’ physical activity via the GP Physical Activity Questionnaire and, where necessary, will provide advice on how to best go about increasing fitness.

Although this is a long-way off the holistic effort Foresight has called for, it does seem to be a step in the right direction, and indicates that the government is working on new ideas to help fight obesity.