Simon Stevens has recommended empowering local government to set tougher public health policy, and giving financial incentives, such as tax breaks, to employers which promote health.

The NHS England chief executive said the health of millions of children, the sustainability of the NHS and the economic prosperity of Britain all depend on a radical upgrade in prevention and public health.

Mr Stevens, speaking at the annual conference of Public Health England in Coventry yesterday, particularly highlighted obesity. He said: “Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising healthcare costs.

“If as a nation we keep piling on the pounds around the waistline, we’ll be piling on the pounds in terms of future taxes needed just to keep the NHS afloat.”

He pointed to the fact that nearly one in five secondary school aged child is obese, as are a quarter of adults - up from just 15 per cent 20 years ago. Unchecked, the result will inevitably be a huge rise in avoidable illness and disability, including many cases of type 2 diabetes.

Mr Stevens indicated that his NHS “five year forward view”, to be published next month, he would recommend specific actions to government including:

  • A shift in NHS investment towards targeted and proven prevention programmes.
  • Offering financial incentives to employers who provide effective and approved workplace health programmes. NHS England said: “Stevens will argue that one of the benefits of a tax-funded NHS is that UK employers are not on the hook for health care costs, but that should not mean that the workplace is neglected as a setting for more concerted health action. Sickness absence-related costs to employers and taxpayers have been estimated at £22bn a year, and over 300,000 people each year fall out of work and onto health-related benefits.”
  • Empowering local councils and elected mayors to make local decisions on fast food, alcohol, tobacco and other public health policy, going further than national policy. NHS England described this as ” ‘devo-max’ approach to empowering local councils and elected mayors in England to make local decisions” on the these issues. Mr Stevens will draw attention to the public health leadership of Michael Bloomberg as Mayor of New York City, and of leading local authorities in England, NHS England said.
  • New incentives to ensure the NHS as an employer sets a national example in the support it offers its own 1.3 million staff to stay healthy.

The “forward view” document is expected to be more wide-reaching than recent NHS strategies, and to highlight issues such as the “hidden workforce” of carers and the third sector, as well as setting out the financial prospects of the service.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said: “PHE welcomes Simon Stevens’s focus on obesity. He rightly highlighted the health and economic costs to society if as a nation we do not act now. His focus on reducing obesity in the NHS workforce and limiting high fat and sugary foods in hospitals is especially important as they are role models for the public.”