FIGHTING obesity in Oxfordshire this year is set to cost the NHS nearly eight times as much as it did just two years ago, figures have shown.

Oxfordshire NHS Primary Care Trust earmarked £88,000 to fight obesity in 2007 — but this year it has set aside £695,000 to tackle the problem.

High demand for stomach surgery and the cost of specialist equipment – such as larger examination couches – are believed to be behind the soaring costs.

Last night, one expert called for even more money to be set aside, while others suggested there were cheaper ways of fighting the flab.

Slimming World consultant Gill Jackson said surgery wasn’t the only way to tackle the issue.

The 52-year-old, who runs weekly classes at Oxford’s Blackbird Leys Leisure Centre, said: “It sounds an enormous amount and that’s why I hope it’s being spent in the right way, including supporting community groups and helping people educate themselves. I find it hard to believe that many people have suddenly started to become ill through their weight. I suspect other factors are now being taken into consideration.”

Mrs Jackson, from Kennington, said that for the past two years Oxfordshire GPs had been taking part in a pilot scheme to refer patients to slimming classes on the NHS.

She said: “It’s fantastically economical and very effective.

“Instead of prescribing expensive pills or surgery, they come along to classes.

“I think it’s beginning to be tackled in the right way by the NHS.”

The PCT said its obesity budget in 2007-8 was £88,000, rising to £245,000 in 2008-9 and £695,000 in 2009-10.

In 2007 it received 48 requests for gastric bypasses, but paid for 16. Last year, it received 52 requests and carried out 21 operations.

Oxford clinical negligence lawyer Richard Coleman welcomed the fact spending had increased – but warned it was still not enough.

Mr Coleman, who works for Withy King Solicitors, said: “The average cost of a gastric bypass is £10,000, so that figure of £88,000 wouldn’t have paid for many patients at all.

“Certainly £695,000 will pay for a lot more, but it’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

“It will decrease the chances of diabetes, strokes and heart disease and that would cost far more than the £695,000 currently spent.”

Health officials said about 24 per cent of Oxfordshire residents were obese – and said the figure could rise to 45 per cent by 2026 if no action was taken.

Mother-of-three Zena Hurn, 48, from Cowley, Oxford, turned to surgery to lose weight when doctors warned that otherwise she would die within three years.

That was two years ago and now — after a private gastric bypass — she is 18 stones lighter and has a healthier and happier future.

Speaking to the Oxford Mail last month, Mrs Hurn, who weighed more than 30 stones before the surgery, said: “I knew what it entailed and I had lots of information about what would happen afterwards.

“I had the surgery performed privately, because seeking funding through the NHS could have taken three years — and I didn't have that long to live.”

She added: “I would like to see the process speeded up so that more people could have operations done through the NHS.”

The Oxford Mail asked Oxfordshire PCT to comment on the figures yesterday, but was told no-one was available.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “We know that obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face and it places a financial burden on the NHS.

“That’s why we’re committed to taking action to prevent more serious illness and much bigger costs to the NHS in years to come.”