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NHS HIGHLAND: We should be wary of quick fixes to booze and obesity woes

By Dr Tim Allison

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Can we learn anything from Denmark?
Can we learn anything from Denmark?

I have never been to Denmark. Perhaps I will be able to go one day and follow up on my distant Viking ancestors.

Various things may come to mind when we think of Denmark. Perhaps it’s Danish bacon or as the homeland of Lego or the concept of comfort through hygge. Two different news stories about Denmark have struck me as interesting over the last few days.

The first story was about alcohol drinking among teenage Danes. Alcohol is available at a young age in Denmark and heavy drinking has become something of a rite of passage for school-age children. Efforts are being made to counteract this culture and to replace alcohol while retaining the fun of parties. However, it is an example of the culture of heavy alcohol drinking that is widespread in northern Europe. Such a culture can be changed but it takes a vast amount of time and effort to do so whether in Denmark or in Scotland.

The second story was about a pharmaceutical company based in Denmark which is a principal local employer, and which has grown like many similar companies. Most recently it has hit the headlines through the development of an injection used in diabetes which has been found to be effective for people losing weight. The demand for the medicine has been huge.

Losing weight through having injections offers an immediate remedy to deal with a long-term challenge. It will be appropriate for some people, especially when combined with other ways to lose weight, but once the injections stop, the effects on appetite and weight stop. Without other ways to control excess weight, it can come back.

The link for me between these two stories is how we deal with big health issues in society. The culture of heavy drinking in northern Europe will not be changed overnight and there is no quick fix. I hope that the work in Denmark to encourage a more responsible attitude to alcohol is successful. Similar activity has shown great success in Iceland and this model is being followed locally. However, it will take concerted effort and several years to show fundamental change.

Helping everyone to keep a healthy weight and tackling obesity will need a similar level of effort and a similar time. Many parts of the world around us do not help us to eat healthily or exercise more. Foods that are better for us may not be cheaper, especially if we are not used to cooking for ourselves.

We can be more active, and we can eat more healthily, improving our overall health and wellbeing, just as we can have a healthier attitude to alcohol. However, it will need both long-term effort and changes in the environment around us to be successful. We should be cautious about quick fixes.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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