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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Changes to the welfare system could lead to more people suffering from illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis, a rise in teenage pregnancies and an increase in smoking, a health board has warned.

NHS Highland said the problems could emerge as a result of changes to people`s benefit entitlement under a shake-up of the system brought in by the UK Government.

The Welfare Reform Act - which provides for the introduction of a Universal Credit to replace a number of existing means-tested benefits and tax credits - is aimed at simplifying the system.

Giving evidence at Holyrood`s Finance Committee, Dr Margaret Somerville, director of public health at NHS Highland, said a predicted drop in family incomes could give rise to various unquantifiable health risks.

She said an increase in mental, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses may emerge as a result of fuel poverty and poor diets.

Dr Somerville also claimed evidence showed that people may prioritise smoking over other living requirements, or may even begin to smoke more due to stress.

Asked by committee members, who are looking at the financial impact of the reforms, about the potential cost implications for the NHS, she said: 'We have held back from giving you an idea of the financial impact because I think it is actually a question of how people choose to behave and what happens in other sectors.

'I think it`s quite complex predicting the effect on health risk behaviours. We certainly know that teenage pregnancies are very closely linked to socio-economic status. The issue there is, actually, that perpetuates the cycle because we know that babies born to teenage parents have a worse start in life.'