The independent London newspaper


11 June, 2010

Publiahed: 11 June, 2010

CHILD obesity has reached epidemic levels in Westminster, with more than a quarter of 11-year-olds so overweight they are putting their health at risk, the doctor charged with responding to the crisis has warned.

Dr Margaret Guy, Director of Public Health for Westminster, predicts the number of children classified as obese will double over the next 20 years unless radical steps are taken, in a disturbing new study into the prevalence of obesity in the borough.

Soaring obesity levels – the highest since records began in 1998 – have been caused by an explosion in unhealthy lifestyles that become ingrained by the end of primary school, according to the 200-page study commissioned by NHS Westminster.

Figures show Westminster has one of the worst records in the capital, and has fallen well short of meeting government targets aimed at halving child obesity by 2010.

Dr Guy points the finger of blame at junk food diets, “couch potato” lifestyles, expensive leisure facilities and, most controversially, overweight parents. 

The report states: “Obesity is a growing epidemic that faces Westminster. The rapid increase in obesity is marked and has surprised everyone. The fact that the increasing prevalence of obesity in adults is mirrored in children is a particular cause for concern. 

“Smoking is currently the main cause of preventable death, however whereas the prevalence of smoking is falling, the prevalence of obesity is increasing. It leads to significant health complications, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, two of the biggest killers in the developed world, as well as diabetes and physical disability.”

While just one in 10 pupils are obese when they start primary school, the number rises to more than one in four by Year 6, according to data collected in 2008.

It has prompted calls for a review of planning regulations to restrict takeaways opening near schools. Westminster has the highest concentration of fast-food outlets in the country and is the least well served by parks, open spaces and playing fields.

Doctors define obesity as the state of being so seriously overweight it affects a person’s health.

If population projections are accurate, by the year 2030, the annual cost to the NHS of tackling obesity in Westminster, will be £50million. 

Child obesity is linked to numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, depression and insomnia. It also dramatically increases the risk of obesity in adulthood.

The report makes a series of recommendations including: offering better advice on healthy eating in schools, the expansion of the KickStart intervention programme for overweight children – currently only taken up by 71 youngsters – and adopting a more “family oriented” approach to stop parental obesity being passed on.

The report also claims that adult obesity is fast overtaking smoking as the biggest public health challenge in Westminster and is contributing to the widening health inequality gap, which means a child born in Lancaster Gate is estimated to live 13 years longer than in one born in Churchill ward in Pimlico.

Opposition leaders say it was a wake-up call. Guthrie McKie, who represents Harrow Road ward, said: “This is a problem that needs urgent attention. 

“Westminster NHS last year funded a Healthy Futures initiative in Queen’s Park and Harrow Road. 

“This was short lived due to lack of funding. Local councillors have asked the council to look at how local planning regulations can be altered to discourage the spread of chicken and kebab takeaway outlets – there are over 20 in the stretch of Harrow Road alone.  

“Action on this now will save lives and money. Child obesity leads to diabetes which could mean a lifetime reliant on medical care. A more positive and robust approach to this must be undertaken soon.”

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has this week launched a review into child obesity after figures revealed the capital has one of the worst records in Europe.

Placing restrictions on takeaway openings near to schools would be “impractical and unenforceable”, a council spokeswoman said, adding that children would just walk further to find one. This year the council aims to get 40 per cent of children playing sport for more than five hours a week and cut obesity in reception classes to less than 10 per cent.

Councillor Nickie Aiken, Westminster’s cabinet member for children and young people, said: “The key to making a difference to children’s lives is early intervention to tackle the root of the issue. By working in close partnership with our schools we can ensure getting fit begins at an early age and health and well being is promoted in all aspects of school life.

“Parents and carers, however, also have a major part to play in tackling this issue. By taking steps such as encouraging their children to walk to school, to eat healthily or stop using buggies on short trips at age of three, they can help ensure their children lead an active life.”

Big problem – Dr Guy’s main findings on child obesity

• In Year 6 (age 10-11) 26.8 per cent of boys and 22.9 per cent of girls are obese

• In 2008 17.9 per cent of boys (about 3,000) and 18.1 per cent of girls (around 2,900 pupils) were obese

• Prevalence is disproportionately high in deprived wards – Queen’s Park, Church Street, Westbourne, Harrow Road and Churchill

• By 2030, the total number of obese children will double to more than 10,000

• The cost to NHS Westminster of treating obesity in 2007 was £36.4m, a number that will increase to £48.3m

• Nearly 13 per cent of all deaths between 2002 and 2007 were directly attributable to obesity – around 170 deaths every year

• Of 66 sites that offer health and fitness facilities in the borough, only seven are council-run, making them “out of financial reach”

• Steady use of prescribing drugs for obesity, with more than 5,000 prescriptions of Orlistat and Sibutramine in 2008-09, more than double in 2004-05


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