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19 Feb 2021

Body fat 'killing more people than smoking' in England and Scotland
BY Tom Walker

Health issues related to excess body fat and obesity now account for nearly a quarter of all deaths

Health issues related to excess body fat and obesity now account for nearly a quarter of all deaths
photo: Shutterstock/LightField Studios

Excess body fat and obesity are likely to have contributed to more deaths in England and Scotland than smoking since 2014, according to new research from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow.


While anti-smoking campaigning has seen the percentage of deaths attributable to smoking fall from 23.1 per cent in 2003 to 19.4 per cent in 2017, deaths attributable to excess body fat and obesity have increased from 17.9 per cent to 23.1 per cent in the same time frame.

The figures come from a study called Changes over 15 years in the contribution of adiposity and smoking to deaths in England and Scotland, published in the journal BMC Public Health this month.

The authors analysed data collected between 2003 and 2017 as part of the Health Surveys for England, and Scottish Health Surveys, on 192,239 adults across England and Scotland.

There are age-related variances – while excess body fat and obesity likely accounted for more deaths among older adults, smoking still to contributes to more deaths than obesity and excess body fat among younger adults.

Professor Jill Pell, the corresponding study author and director of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, said: “For several decades smoking has been a major target of public health interventions, as it is a leading cause of avoidable deaths.

"As a result, the prevalence of smoking has fallen in the UK. At the same time the prevalence of obesity has increased.

"Our research indicates that, since 2014, obesity and excess body fat may have contributed to more deaths in England and Scotland than smoking.

“The increase in estimated deaths due to obesity and excess body fat is likely to be partly due to their contributions to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

"Our findings suggest that the public health and policy interventions aimed at reducing the prevalence of smoking have been successful and that national strategies to address obesity and excess body fat, particularly focusing on middle-aged and older age groups and men, should be a public health priority.”

The analysis also suggests that gender has a role to play.

Among men, obesity and excess body fat accounted for 5.2 per cent more deaths than smoking during 2017. The comparative figure for women was 2.2 per cent.

• To read the full report, click here for the BMC Public Health journal.

• A recent research study by the University of Cambridge found that 689 government policies over a period of 30 years had failed to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK.

Obesity has also been implicated in a high proportion of deaths from COVID-19, with current research underway to establish the extent of this issue.



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