Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris has warned that Ireland is on track to be the world’s fattest nation if greater steps aren’t taken by the government to deal with the country’s growing obesity problem.
As it stands, 60 percent of Irish adults and one in four children are overweight or obese, a crisis that is costing the state an estimated €1 billion a year.
This is almost twice the US percentage which stands at 35.7 percent of adults being considered obese. More than one in 20 (6.3 percent) are extremely obese. As of 2012, 18 percent of children aged between six and eleven years old are considered obese. On a European average, over 50% of the men and women in the World Health Organization’s European Region are considered overweight.
The minister was speaking at the launch of a new government policy and plan aimed at ending the epidemic and promoting a healthier weight across the country.
Referring to Ireland’s obesity problem as a “ticking-time bomb”, Harris stated that it has already “denoted” in some cases.
The plan, which will be implemented by government over the next ten years, will include the introduction of legislation on calorie posting, the development of national healthy eating guidelines, and the awarding of greater priority to obesity services with the government-run Health Service Executive (HSE) where a clinical lead will be appointed to guide policy on the problem. Legislation requiring all restaurants to show calorie counts in their meals is expected to be made law by the end of next year.
The Department of Health's plan will also focus on the growing rate of young Irish people struggling with obesity by working with the Department of Education to improve awareness and good habits around healthy eating in Irish schools. This will include the availability of drinking water in all centers of learning and the introduction of maximum portion sizes on “relevant” food and drink.
Within the plan is support for the controversial “sugar tax”. In the past two budgets, the Department of Finance has rejected a tax placed on sugary drinks to decrease their consumption. The levy is expected to appear in next month’s budget, however, with an official introduction in 2018.
Other previous efforts have been made to develop a nationwide strategy to tackle obesity but did not succeed. Referring to a 2006 report from the national obesity taskforce on which he served, Professor Donal O’Shea, one the State’s foremost obesity experts, told the Irish Times: “That plan was dead in the water within the year and we weren’t even allowed hold a meeting to discuss it.”
Although disappointed that the sugar levy will not be implemented sooner than 2018, O’Shea is more hopeful for this new strategy and the targets and timelines set out.
Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy confirmed that the plan was “not designed to sit on the shelf” also stating she wished for the sugar tax to be implemented in 2017, so the revenue collected could be used to implement the health measures laid out in the newly launched obesity policy.
“Our aims are to have a normal weight becoming the norm. We are becoming the fattest nation in Europe and what we are aiming for is people to be carrying normal weight as the norm,” she said.
Despite the reluctance of the Department of Health to implement the tax, a recent poll by Irish Examiner / ICMSA showed that one in four Irish people agree that the parents of morbidly obese children should be criminally prosecuted.
The poll also showed 44 per cent in favor of the tax with 39 per cent against.
O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist and physician based in St Vincent’s University Hospital and St Columcille's Hospital, Dublin, said the results of the opinion poll were “very encouraging.”
“Public opinion is now in favour and the obesity problem is now,” he said, stating his disappointment if there were to be a delay on the sugar tax, which he believes could be extended to other foods, not just to sugary drinks, in the future.
The recent poll showed men to be more in support of the tax at 46 percent, compared to 34 percent of women. The tax was also more popular among older generations with 46% support among those aged 65 and over.
Overall 54% disagreed with prosecuting the parents of morbidly obese children, 31% of whom strongly disagreed.