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Obesity in Scotland finally stabilising

Scottish Health Survey signals an end to increasing obesity in Scottish adults

02 December 2014 | Tags: health, Scottish Health Survey, obesity, smoking, drinking

The 2013 Scottish Health Survey - published today – confirms that adult obesity levels in Scotland are finally stabilising. There has been no increase in obesity over the last five years, although a sizeable proportion of the population have a larger waist circumference.

The survey, commissioned by the Scottish Government Health Directorates and conducted by ScotCen Social Research, interviewed nearly 5,000 adults and around 1,800 children in Scotland between January 2013 and January 2014.

Shape of the nation

Over a quarter of adults (27%) in Scotland were obese in 2013, while 65% were overweight or obese. However adult obesity levels have not changed significantly in the last 5 years having, having been 26.8% in 2008, indicating that obesity levels now look to have stabilised.

However, half of women (50%) and a third of men (33%) had a raised waist circumference in 2012/2013, highlighting that a significant proportion of the population are at increased risk of obesity related diseases. Since 1995 the average waist measurement for those aged 16-64 has increased by 6% from 90.2cm (35”) to 96.1cm (38”) for men and from 78.5cm (31”) to 88.7cm (35”) for women, up 11.5%. The gradual movement of fat to around the middle may be putting people at increased risk of illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Giving up drinking on the increase

More people are giving up drinking. One in five women (20%) reported not having drunk at all last year– as did 12% of men. In the last decade the percentage of women saying they no longer drink has roughly doubled from 5% to 9%, while the corresponding figure for men has risen from 4% to 7%.

In the last decade average weekly consumption of alcohol has steadily declined for both men and women. Since 2003, the average units men consumed per week fell from 19.8 units to 13.7 units. Over the same period, consumption for women has fallen from an average 9.0 units per week to 6.8 units in 2013. Between 2012 and 2013 average weekly unit consumption continued to decline significantly for men from 15.2 units per week to 13.7 units.

In 2013 around one in four (22%) men and one in six (16%) women drank at ‘hazardous or harmful’ levels exceeding the recommended limit of 21 units per week for men or 14 units for women.  

Second-hand tobacco exposure

The Scottish Health Survey measures non-smokers’ exposure to second hand tobacco smoke by analysing the levels of cotinine in a sample of their saliva collected during the interview. Encouragingly, the survey reveals a significant decline in tobacco exposure for both male and female non-smokers over the last decade, from 0.40ng/ml in 2003 to 0.08ng/ml in 2012/2013, with most of this change taking place immediately after the introduction of the smoking ban in 2006.

However, one in seven (14%) non-smoking adults still report being exposed to tobacco smoke in their own or another’s home, while 17% report second-hand exposure in a public place. Interestingly, younger non-smoking adults (aged 16-24) were twice as likely as those aged 25-54 (31%, compared with 13-15%), and around four times as likely as those aged 55 and over (6-9%), to report that they were exposed to smoke in their own or someone else's home.

In 2013, 11% of children aged 0-15 were exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke in the home, with those aged 10 or over around three times as likely as those aged 0-1 (5%) to be exposed, suggesting that attitudes and behaviour towards exposing others to second-hand smoke changes beyond infancy and early childhood.

Other key findings:

  • Cigarette smoking continued to decline in 2013 with a significant drop in the percentage of adults reporting that they smoked cigarettes since 2012 (from 25% to 21%).
  • Men (23%) remain more likely than women (20%) to smoke cigarettes, while those aged 25 – 54 are most likely to report smoking (24 – 25%).
  • Male non-smokers are more likely than female counterparts to report second-hand exposure to tobacco smoke while at work (6% compared with 3%).
  • In 2012/2013, 5% of adults reported having attempted suicide at some point in their life, with women more likely than men to report having made an attempt (6% compared with 3%).
  • Women are significantly more likely than men to provide unpaid care to a friend or family member in 2013 (19% and 13% respectively). Four percent of children (aged 4 – 15) were unpaid carers (8% of those aged 12-15).  
  • One in six (15.5%) adults, in 2013, reported that they had been diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease by a doctor.
  • One in three (29%) of adults aged 16 and over had survey-defined hypertension in 2012/2013, the risk-factor of which increases with age.

Lisa Rutherford, Research Director at ScotCen Social Research commented: “There is some encouraging news here, the gradual decline in drinking has been maintained, smoking continues to decline and adult obesity appears to be flatlining. However, the fact remains that two in three adults in Scotland are overweight or obese, just over a third of us are falling short of the physical activity guidelines and fruit and vegetable consumption hasn’t improved in the last decade. So there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to protecting ourselves against obesity-related illnesses.”

The report is available in full here:


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  1. Further discussion of the findings and full documentation of the survey’s methods and questionnaire can be found in the 2013 annual report available from the Scottish Health Survey website: report is accompanied by an extensive set of web tables for 2013 and updated trends for key measures.
  1. SHeS has been designed to provide data on the health of adults (aged 16 and above) and children (aged 0-15) living in private households in Scotland annually. In 2013, 4,894 adults and 1,839 children took part in the survey. Representative data for adults in each NHS Health Board for the 2012-2015 period will be available in 2016.