ALMOST £700,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent on sending more than 12,000 overweight and obese residents to diet groups, the Oxford Mail can reveal.

Some 12,219 have been referred by their GP since 2010 to 12-week courses at Weight Watchers or Slimming World at £48.50 or £47.30 respectively.

If all attended at the lower cost, that would mean a total paid out of £577,958.

And another 133 have been referred to weight loss firm MoreLife since it began to help the most challenging cases since September.

The 12-month programme costs the council about £800 for each person – meaning the bill amounts to £106,400.

It comes after the first survey of adults’ weight in Oxfordshire reported 60.7 per cent were overweight or obese.

The 12,219 went to the Slimming Referral Programme from 2010 so “patients can learn the importance of healthy eating and exercise,” council guidance says.

Those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more are offered the classes, though this is lower for some ethnic minorities.

A 35-year-old man who is 15st and 5ft 9in tall would have a BMI of 31 while a 35-year-old woman who is 13st and 5ft 5in would have a BMI of 30.2.

The long-established MoreLife service saw 1,086 people from September 2010 to August 2013.

Council health improvement principal Kate King said: “There isn’t a silver bullet to this problem.

“We need to tackle this in lots of different ways and one is identifying people at risk.”

The “first port of call should be self care and support” she said.

But the classes are for those who “need more help”.

Easy access to high calorie food makes it “very difficult for people, even if you are quite determined and want to try and keep your weight in check”.

She said: “It is not surprising that people are overweight.”

She said tackling obesity was vital in the fight against conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.

The 60.7 per cent figure was from a new part of an annual Sport England survey of about 875 county people about lifestyles. It is below the England average of 64 per cent.

Oxfordshire had the third highest rate of obese and overweight respondents – a BMI of 25 or more – after Bracknell Forest, at 66.2 per cent, and Buckinghamshire at 64.4 per cent.

Ms King said: “I would say that was what we would expect. It wasn’t shocking.

“I think we have known that levels in Oxfordshire are higher than we would like them to be.”

Children aged four or five in reception year and 10 to 11 in year 6 have been weighed at school to provide data on lifestyles since 2006.

The rate of overweight children has changed little, from 12.2 per cent in reception and 13 per cent in year 6 in 2006/07 to 11.9 per cent and 13.4 per cent in 2012/13.

Figures on obese reception class children fell from eight per cent to 6.4 per cent over that period, but only from 15.3 per cent to 15.1 per cent in year 6.

The council has a £26m budget to promote public health, a role it took over from the NHS last April.

‘Short-term help has to be the best way forward’

Annika Price, 28, lost seven-and-a-half stone in six months after following the Cambridge Weight Plan, which involves eating three specified snacks each day – a milkshake or a cereal bar – until the target weight is reached.

The mum-of-two from Didcot, who weighed 17 stone and now weighs nine-and-a-half stone, said: “I didn’t go through the NHS. I paid the cost myself to lose the weight.

“I do have friends who go to Weight Watchers, so have been using vouchers from doctors’ surgeries.

Banbury Cake:

Annika Price before she started her weight loss programme

“I do believe anything to help you lose weight is expensive.

“From my opinion, in the long run, this benefits the NHS in getting people healthy. Being overweight, you are at risk of diabetes, heart disease.”

She added: “It is quite hard, because a lot of people would be against their money going towards it. But there are people out there who do need help to lose weight. Isn’t it better that the NHS does help and in the long term it costs less for the taxpayers?”