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Shock rise in obesity pills prescriptions

PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:59 06 July 2010

Doctors today stood accused of taking the "easy option" as it emerged the number of drugs dished out to obese patients in Norfolk has doubled in just a few years.

Doctors today stood accused of taking the “easy option” as it emerged the number of drugs dished out to obese patients in Norfolk has doubled in just a few years.

The full scale of the obesity crisis we face was laid bare as new figures show there were more than 27,000 people in the area taking some form of drug to tackle a weight problem last year - leading to criticism that GPs are prescribing pills to deal with weight problems instead of encouraging a healthier alternative.

NHS Norfolk wrote 22,220 prescriptions for anti-obesity drugs in 2008 to 2009, compared to just over 15,000 in 2005 to 2006.

It was a similar picture for the county's other primary care trust, NHS Yarmouth and Waveney, which gave out 2, 614 anti-obesity drugs in 2004/05, rising to 5,068 in 2008/09.

Health bosses claim there are numerous measures in place to stem the growing problem, including encouraging healthier lifestyles, more exercise and improved diets but campaigners say there is a danger that, not only are we getting bigger, we could become hooked on pills.

It heaps further criticism on health bosses in Norfolk as it was once dubbed the country's “pill popping capital” due to the high number of anti-depressants given to patients.

As reported 18.3pc of 10 to 11 year olds in Norfolk are classed as obese, which is a rise from 16.2pc last year, and it is estimated at least 26pc of people overall are obese or severely overweight in the county.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the rise in pill-prescribing was a “frightening increase”.

“I understand in some cases there is a need for medication but people who are obese should be encouraged to eat better and exercise before any drugs are even considered,” he said. “I am worried that doctors cannot cope with the severely rising number of obese people and are handing out drugs because it is an easier option than other help or advice.

“This should be a last resort only and the matter needs to be addressed urgently. The concern is that people could become hooked on these drugs.”

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “This rise in the use of drugs is a real indictment on society. It seems to me that we are ignoring measures to prevent our children becoming obese and then turning to drugs as a treatment of choice when they should be a last resort.”

Obesity is calculated using a formula known as the Body Mass Index, which is based on height and weight. If it is higher than 25 someone is considered overweight and above 30 is considered obese.

One of the drugs given to patients is Alli, brand name for Orlistat, which is a controversial weight loss drug also sold online that could lead to addiction.

A spokeswoman for Beat said: “Nobody should become completely reliant on pills as a way of controlling weight. One of the side effects is violent diarrhoea - and losing fluid in such a way could have serious physical consequences.

“We encourage people to live healthy lifestyles and not become dependent on drugs. But anyone with a serious eating disorder should seek help from their doctor.”

Health bosses said they were working hard to tackle the problem but said it was a “long term project” and results could not be achieved overnight. Ian Small, deputy director for prescribing for NHS Norfolk, said: “Anti-obesity drugs are recommended to be used in accordance with a healthy lifestyle in order to be effective. The most commonly prescribed anti-obesity drug in our area - Orlistat - works by helping to stop the body absorb fats from your diet, but if you continue to eat a high fat diet you may suffer uncomfortable side effects, and you are, of course, reducing any chance of effectiveness the medication might have.

“However, they can be helpful for some patients, if a GP or prescribing clinician makes the judgment that it is appropriate in an individual patient's case.

He said he would never suggest that anti-obesity medicines are the whole 'answer' to tackling this problem and stressed the effectiveness of anti-obesity drugs was only seen in the short-term.

Ms Sarah Barnes, health improvement Manager for NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney, said: “We promote maintaining a healthy weight through balanced nutrition, regular exercise and behaviour change.”

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