I USUALLY tell people to take statistics and scare stories with a pinch of salt. But some findings this week from three top medical bodies need to be heeded, or as a nation, we are heading for grave problems.

I am talking about the swelling numbers of people of all ages who are clinically obese. The problem, its growing prevalence among young people and the strain it puts on employers and the NHS was described by one doctor as terrifying. For once I agree with the prophets of doom.

And I also began to wonder, why - when we can't turn on the TV or open a magazine without hearing of the latest wonder diet - is the problem getting worse.

Perhaps a clue was in a comment from the Royal College of Physicians, one of the organisations behind the report. They are "shying away" from hard hitting advertising because it might create a blame culture akin to that surrounding smoking.

Well, sorry if this offends anyone, but I think it is time for some hard talking and may be a bit of blame too.

Take the analogy with smoking. Remember when smokers occupied every seat on the bus, every restaurant table and indulged their habit at every office desk?

Then they were banished to the back of the bus, to the table in the corner, the smoking room next to the loo. Now more often than not they're off the bus and out of the office, shopping mall, cinema or restaurant. And very few would say that's a bad thing.

They didn't disappear by magic. People stopped smoking, or at least realised its anti-social aspect, because they were told by everyone from politicians and doctors to families and friends that their habit was a killer. In the street, on the TV, the message was hammered home - and continue to be stressed - in some pretty graphic publicity campaigns.

The food industry doesn't stint itself when it comes to advertising. Maybe we need to fight them with their own weapons. This week, I have asked our council leisure and sports services to come up with new ways of working with health professionals, youth clubs, private leisure clubs, the university and the media to get the public thinking about and taking action on this problem.

But we also need to be pretty blunt in telling people with a serious weight problem that they need to take a hard look at themselves and accept some responsibility for their lifestyle choices, particularly those around diet and exercise. It isn't something that Dr Atkins needs to be asked to solve. They have the answer themselves.

Of course, there's help. Here in Middlesbrough we have set up a healthy eating and living project giving people a structured introduction to good diet and regular exercise. You won't have to walk far in most communities to find something similar. But you have to take the first step alone.

When I gave these views, perhaps in a more vigorous language, to an audience of health professionals this week, there was quite a bit of seat-shuffling, paper-rustling and all the other signs that feathers had been ruffled. I am sorry if anyone listening to me there or reading this column has been offended. I genuinely don't want to hurt people's feelings but equally I don't want to see them hurting themselves. Look after yourselves.