Data released on Wednesday (May 8) by NHS Digital reveals that there were 4,500 hospital admissions with a primary or secondary diagnosis of obesity in Northumberland in 2017-18.
This was by far the highest number of the 12 local authorities in the North East and hundreds ahead of the second highest – 3,700 in County Durham.
When converted into a figure per 100,000 of population, Northumberland’s 1,366 was still the highest in the region and sits above the England average of 1,323 too, although it shows very little change over 2016-17.
In terms of hospital admissions directly attributed to obesity, Northumberland’s total of 32 admissions per 100,000 people was significantly above the England average of 20 but well below the North East figure of 58.
There were 100 such admissions in Northumberland, compared to 335 in County Durham and 315 in Sunderland.
The trend in Northumberland for this measure had been upward from 2014-15 through to 2016-17, but it saw a fall in 2017-18.
The data also shows that there were 35 obesity admissions for bariatric surgery in Northumberland that year, a rate of 11 per 100,000, which was below both the regional and national averages – 27 and 12 respectively.
Again this figure had risen over the previous three years in the county, before dropping back down in 2017-18.
The latest figures for childhood obesity (for the 2017-18 academic year) reveal that 24.1 per cent of Reception-age children were overweight or obese in Northumberland, rising to 35.7 per cent at Year 6. For both, the county is below the North-East average but above the England figure.
Reacting to the national picture, Coun Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Obesity is one of our most serious public-health challenges and these figures are a wake-up call on what is needed to help combat this epidemic.
“Early intervention and prevention work by councils, which are responsible for public health, is vital to deal with this. Not only does it reduce the risk of people having their lives shortened by obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, but it also keeps the pressure off the NHS and adult social care.
“Councils are leading efforts to fight obesity, but have seen their public-health funding budgets fall by £700million in real terms since 2015-16, which needs to be reversed in the upcoming Spending Review if they are to continue this cost-effective work and reduce health inequalities between different areas.
“It is also abundantly clear that radical action is needed in the Government’s impending green paper on prevention, to truly help reduce the nearly one-third of all adults and the 20 per cent of Year 6 children who are classified as obese.”
Health and council bosses in the county are under no illusions about the scale of the problem, with tackling obesity being a key strand running through the Northumberland Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy for 2018 to 2028.
This decade-long strategy, which aims to boost the life expectancy of residents while reducing health inequalities, was signed off in January.
Obesity and tackling its causes through encouraging healthy eating and physical activity are repeatedly mentioned across the document’s four themes: Giving every child and young person the best start in life; Empowering people and communities; Tackling some of the wider determinants of health; Adopting a whole-system approach to health and care.
But it is not just within healthcare that the council can make a difference and, as previously reported, its new Local Plan, which is due to be submitted to the Government this month, contains a specific policy on hot food takeaways.
It would stop new outlets being opened in areas where there are already high levels of overweight/obese children or within 400 metres of schools or colleges.
They would also be prohibited in places which already have a large number of takeaways or where it would replace the last convenience shop or pub in a village or parade of shops.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service