The cost of losing weight

NICE's recommendation that every obese or overweight person should be eligible for a slimming club was slated as too expensive - but how much would the NHS save if it worked?

There was something of an outcry over the suggestion by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) last week that everybody who is obese or seriously overweight should be eligible for Weight Watchers or a similar slimming club, paid for by the NHS. That, the Telegraph pointed out, would be two-thirds of the population. A three-month course, at local authority discounted rates, would cost around £53 a person. It certainly adds up to a lot of money, even if we are talking only about England, where the NICE guidance applies.

But look at it another way and this starts to sound like a really good financial deal. If the NHS could spend £53 a head to prevent even some of the long-term chronic ill-health that obesity causes, it might not be facing quite such a serious financial future. Look at the looming costs of type 2 diabetes, for instance, and heart disease, strokes and cancers directly caused by overweight. Stomach stapling and other sorts of gastric surgery to reduce the amount people can physically eat cost between £5000 and £15000 in a private clinic - they would be a bit cheaper for the NHS - and many experts argue they are a very good buy.

But in fact the niggling over the NICE recommendations is in reality just so much froth. Relatively few people ever have a conversation with their GP about their weight - even when it has become a problem. GP referrals to slimming clubs are not going to break the NHS bank. Those who argue we can only afford to treat sick people will get their wish - the obese who might have been able to do something about it with the help and support offered at a club will become sick instead.

Powered by article was written by Sarah Boseley, for on Tuesday 3rd June 2014 15.18 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010