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Is Scotland still the ‘sick man of Europe’?

Posted on 26 September 2016
Tags: Scottish Health Survey, health, obesity, smoking

Back in the late-70’s the UK was dubbed the “Sick Man of Europe” because of poor financial performance, industrial unrest and rising inflation. More recently, Scotland has occasionally been given the same moniker because of our actual health. But is this reputation justified? And is the picture of the nation’s health getting better or worse over time?

Well, the good news is that we are kicking the smoking habit. The bad news is that a lot of people in Scotland still weigh too much, and it’s well documented the burden an overweight population can place on health services.

The reason we know all this is because of the Scottish Health Survey, commissioned by the Scottish Government and run by ScotCen Social Research. We interview thousands of adults and children each year to get a really accurate picture of health across Scotland over time.

Fewer people smoke, but the number of people vaping has increased

When it comes to smoking, the Scottish Health Survey shows that there has been a long-term improvement over time. In total, 21% smoke now in comparison to 28% in 2003, although figures for the last three years have been relatively similar. We are also able to see for the first time how usage of electronic cigarettes has changed –7% of the population currently use them, a significant increase on the 5% using them in the previous year, with young adults particularly more likely to have tried them than older adults.

We see a similar downward trend in the extent that children are exposed to smoke. Here there has been a significant change in a relatively short period of time. In 2014, just over one in ten (11%) of children were exposed to second-hand smoke in the home, decreasing to just over one in twenty (6%) last year. This is good news for Scottish health; children who are exposed to second hand smoke are at increased risk of several health conditions, and children with a parent who smokes are three times more likely to smoke themselves.

Nearly two thirds of Scots are overweight or obese

The proportion of adults who are overweight or obese hasn’t changed to any great extent since 2008, with around two-thirds (65%) fitting in this category last year.

And while levels of obesity have plateaued, the proportion of people carrying a dangerous amount of weight around their stomach, with what is termed a “raised” waist circumference, has increased. Back in 2003, 28% of men and 39% of women had a raised waist circumference but in the most recent couple of years this has risen to 37% and 52% respectively.

Some good news comes when we look at the weight of Scotland’s children. Although there has been little change since 2008 in the proportion of girls who are a healthy weight (70% in 2015), there have been year-on-year increases for boys in the most recent period, rising gradually from 63% in 2011 to 73% in 2015.

Of course, the Scottish Health Survey looks regularly at a range of different issues, from alcohol consumption and mental wellbeing to physical activity and dental health, so this is just a partial view of a far wider issue.

However, it does suggest that while stereotypes of an entire nation’s health may be useful as a means of focusing attention, they do not necessarily reflect what is often a more complex reality.


A version of this blog was first published in The Scotsman.

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