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Obesity now a bigger threat to health than smoking, says top NI doctor

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Initiatives are being planned to deal with the obesity crisis

Initiatives are being planned to deal with the obesity crisis

Initiatives are being planned to deal with the obesity crisis

Obesity is now a bigger threat to the health of Northern Ireland than smoking, a leading doctor has said.

Latest official figures show that one in six of all deaths here are attributable to smoking.

However, Dr Tom Black has said tobacco-related conditions have now been surpassed by the region's obesity crisis and warned it is essential that action is taken to address the situation.

It comes as evidence increasingly suggests that people who are overweight are more at risk from coronavirus.

That prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to yesterday announce a campaign to tackle obesity as he spoke about his own weight battles while he was critically ill with the virus.

"It's quite simple, obesity is the new smoking," said Dr Black, chair of the British Medical Association's Council in Northern Ireland.

"Smoking used to be the leading factor for morbidity and mortality, but that has now been overtaken by obesity.

"Doctors used to treat people for conditions like pneumonia, but now we are dealing with the effects of drinking, drugs, not doing enough exercise.

"The main problem when it comes to obesity is diet. Patients tell you that they don't have enough time to exercise, but the biggest issue for people is the fourth meal, such as the Chinese takeaway late at night."

The proposals being put forward by Mr Johnson to tackle obesity include the introduction of calorie content on alcohol labels and a ban on sweets at supermarket check-outs.

He has also called on GPs to intervene when patients are obese, by prescribing cycling, and he is looking at the provision of bicycles to help people lose weight.

Speaking yesterday, health minister Robin Swann said his department has been working with their counterparts in Westminster on initiatives to address obesity levels in Northern Ireland.

However, he said proposals such as restricting promotions of food high in fat, salt and sugar are devolved matters and "more consideration will need to be given to these".

He also said he has asked the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, to consider the wider impacts of Covid-19 on the health of the population, including the challenges associated with obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption and mental well-being.

He added: "While we are keen to promote cycling for physical activity and active travel, there is currently no regional scheme that provides access to bicycles.

"My officials will give further consideration to the effectiveness of such approaches."

Dr Black, a Londonderry GP, said family doctors have a role to play in helping to address the growing problem of obesity in Northern Ireland.

However, he said that some patients are unwilling to accept they have issues with their weight and this is a challenge that he and his colleagues have faced over the years.

As a result of this, he said that doctors must raise the subject in a sensitive way.

Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland (RCGPNI), Dr Laurence Dorman, said: "Obesity is an important issue that doctors see every day in GP surgeries and that's where knowing the patient really matters and our expert skills in treating the whole person shine through.

"RCGPNI is very supportive of public health messages that highlight the benefits of living well and that means eating a nutritious, balanced diet and being aware of the traffic light calorie system for you and your family when shopping for food, doing exercise, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation.

"Small, often simple, lifestyle changes can have a really positive impact on our health and well-being."

Belfast Telegraph