Benefit cuts for the obese could force people into weight-loss surgery

David Cameron has ordered a review into withholding sickness benefits for people who won't lose weight

Charlie Cooper
Thursday 19 March 2015 01:02 GMT
People may be forced to decide between weight loss surgery or losing their benefits
People may be forced to decide between weight loss surgery or losing their benefits (Getty Images)

The Prime Minister’s proposal to cut benefits for obese people who refuse treatment could force hundreds to choose between weight loss surgery or losing their welfare payments, leading doctors have said.

David Cameron has ordered a rapid review to look at whether it would be appropriate to withhold sickness benefits from those who are unwilling to accept help to lose weight.

However, in an editorial for the medical journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, experts said the only treatment for obesity that has been proven to be successful in the long-term is bariatric surgery.

Traditional weight loss support – which includes professional help to encourage dieting and exercise – is only of limited use, they said, because of biological changes that occur in people when they become severely obese that make it extremely difficult to lose weight and keep it off.

For the Prime Minister’s proposals to be meaningful, the help offered to obese people would need “strong evidence for success”: which is only true in the case of bariatric surgery such as gastric bypasses and gastric banding, the experts said.

Requiring someone to undergo such a major surgical procedure as a condition of receiving welfare payments “seems far from ethical”, they add.

The procedures, which involve rerouting the digestive system so that food bypasses most of the stomach, ensuring people feel full more quickly, are currently considered on the NHS for anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

It is not yet clear how the proposals, part of a wider Government plan to bring down the welfare bill, would work in practise. Whether people would be allowed to receive benefits after having tried and failed at health and diet programmes, before having to resort to bariatric surgery, is not yet known.

The authors said that it was unlikely that any such scheme could save the country money.

According to Freedom of Information requests, the number of people claiming sickness benefit for the primary reason of obesity is very low – only 1,780 people as of May 2014, out of 2.5m who claim the benefits in total. The cost of providing potentially unsuccessful health and diet programmes, weight loss drugs that are often of limited benefit and, as a last resort, weight loss surgery, could end up posing “a substantial cost” to the NHS, they write.

Meanwhile, Government health advisors have said that morbidly obese people – those with a BMI of over 40 – should be given free flu jabs on the NHS.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommendation could see the morbidly obese, who are more vulnerable to flu infection, put into the same category as the over 65s, young children, pregnant women and people with asthma, diabetes, heart disease or weakened immune systems – all of whom are already eligible for free winter flu jabs.

Evidence provided by Public Health England has indicated that morbidly obese people are more likely to suffer complications or die as a result of flu.

“The committee confirmed its advice that morbid obesity should be considered a risk factor for seasonal influenza vaccination,” a JCVI spokesperson said.

The Government is yet to decide whether to act on the advice.

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