23/08/2012 11:13 BST

Health Inequality Grows As Smoking, Junk Food And Drinking Falls Amongst Rich, But NHS Gastric Bypasses Rise

Smoking, binge drinking and lack of exercise have all fallen in recent years - but NHS gastric bypass operations to help the obese lose weight are on the up, according to new figures.

A study published on Thursday found wealthy and highly educated people are responsible for the significant fall in unhealthy behaviour, warning this could mean health inequalities between the rich and poor are being exacerbated.

Researchers from the The King's Fund analysed data relating to four key lifestyle behaviours - smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise - in England between 2003 and 2008.


The number of people eating junk food and not exercising has fallen - but gastric bands are on the rise

Their study found that the proportion of the population engaging in three or four of these behaviours fell from 33% to 25% over the five-year period - the equivalent of 8%.

But the proportion from poorer sections of society, manual workers and people with no qualifications, who smoke, drink and eat to excess and do not exercise, remained the same.

New figures have revealed that obesity in particular is taking a toll on the NHS, with a 530% increase in gastric bypass operations paid for by the public service.

Some 5,407 procedures took place in 2011/12 to help obese patients lose weight, compared with just 858 in 2006/07, according to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

The British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society said gastric bypass operations had proven to be the most effective surgery to ensure long-term weight loss.

The society has now called on the Department of Health to guarantee patients have equal access to the treatment, with BOMSS president Alberic Fiennes saying: "There is compelling evidence that weight-loss surgery to treat the most severely affected is one of the most clinically effective, safe and cost effective treatments available.

"There are about 1.5 million such adults in the UK. They face premature death, disease and disability brought on as a direct result of their condition.

"These can be prevented, improved or eliminated by surgery. While the increase in bariatric surgery is welcomed by the BOMSS and the Royal College of Surgeons, we remain concerned that there is unequal access to treatment across the UK.

"We therefore call on the Department of Health to invest in a long term strategy to ensure that all patients have equal access to this life-saving treatment."

The Kings Fund report called on the government to take urgent action to address the country's health inequalities: "The health of the overall population will improve as a result of the decline in these behaviours, but the poorest and those with least education will benefit least, leading to widening inequalities and avoidable pressure on the NHS."

David Buck, a senior fellow at The King's Fund and the lead author of the report, said: "If the Government is serious about improving the health of the poorest fastest, it must focus on reducing multiple unhealthy risky behaviours among the poorest groups, rather than only relying on focused on single behaviours."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We are working hard to tackle health inequalities - from next year, local authorities will receive a specific public health budget for the first time, targeted at the areas that need it most.

"Additionally, the Health Act has given the NHS its first ever duties concerning the need to reduce health inequalities."

Health minister Simon Burns added: "We want people to live healthier lives so they do not need to resort to surgery, but as a last resort, doctors can advise procedures like these are undertaken.

"We are working with charities, local government and industry to make it easier for people to make better choices to prevent obesity in the first place.

"This year a third of meals and takeaways served from popular high street chains will contain calorie information and over a million families are involved in our Change4Life campaign - helping people to eat well and move more."