Seanad debates

Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Report of National Task Force on Obesity: Statements.


3:00 pm

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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The report of the national task force on obesity, which was launched by the Taoiseach on 16 May last, will be seen as one of the most important and far-reaching health reports of its kind. Its recommendations, which have the potential to affect the health of our citizens and future generations, seek to lay the foundations for a healthier Ireland for decades to come.

Obesity has become one of the fastest growing health problems in Ireland. The worldwide prevalence of excess weight and obesity has been described by the World Health Organisation as an epidemic. Excess body weight is now the most prevalent childhood disease in Ireland. Data suggests there are more than 300,000 overweight and obese children on the island of Ireland, with a potential rise of 10,000 new cases every year. These figures indicate that, as a nation, we must prioritise the issue of childhood obesity and tackle the problem head on. We cannot afford to be complacent.

We know the key causes of obesity are directly linked to food and physical activity habits and that, in most cases, obesity is preventable. However, prevention is not that simple. Many powerful factors influence personal choice and the problem is of such complexity that a co-ordinated, cohesive approach across many sectors is required before we will see any change in the prevalence of obesity.

It is not an issue we can expect the health sector to deal with in isolation. It is imperative that cross-sectoral policies and strategies are employed to enable us to pool our resources and avoid duplication of effort or confusion about roles and responsibilities. This principle is central to the task force report and is an example of the pragmatic, clear-thinking approach of those who contributed to the development of this important report. I pay tribute to all involved in drawing up the report under the chairmanship of John Treacy. Its preparation involved much effort and hard work, for which I express my thanks and appreciation.

The report's central proposition is that a fundamental policy drive at Government level is required to develop a society which can enable people to eat healthily and partake in physical activity. The Government must take a leadership role in this area. We will need the support of NGOs, communities, schools, health professionals and the food industry in achieving goals that will protect all generations from illness, psychological problems and, in many cases, premature death. The Government must work with other groups to achieve the aims and objectives set out by the task force. However, we need to find the most effective means of implementing multisectoral collaboration. It is imperative that the Government takes responsibility and, ultimately, the leadership role in tackling this substantial, intricate challenge.

I acknowledge the role played by schools in particular, which, in many cases, lay great emphasis on the need for physical activity. While some schools do not have the resources or environment we would all wish them to have, they make every effort to use the facilities made available to them. We must build on that base and encourage all schools, not just some, to adopt that role.

I also acknowledge the role of the food industry. Some sectors of the industry realised the problem late but, nevertheless, they appreciate the difficulty with obesity and, for example, some businesses now take a more responsible approach to providing suitable menus, particularly for children. We would like to build on that beginning. While this is an area where we could and should have been more proactive, we cannot look back. We must look to the future and work with the different groups involved to achieve co-operation towards meeting this challenge together.

Ireland has demonstrated in the past that it can take an advocacy role at an international level in areas such as this. Ireland led the way for the rest of the world by becoming the first country to go smoke-free at work. While the sceptics had predicted that the tobacco legislation would not work, Ireland proved it is a nation that can embrace change. I am confident we will embrace the changes needed to face up to this serious public health problem.

We should not underestimate the scale of the problem, which can sometimes be trivialised. One need only look at the facts to see what lies ahead if this issue is not tackled without delay and at the highest level. Some 39% of Irish adults are overweight and 18% are obese. Children are now being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a condition previously only seen in adults. As much as 58% of type 2 diabetes and 21% of heart disease is attributable to excess body fat. Obesity can also lead to stigma, prejudice and isolation. The cost of treating obesity and related illnesses in Ireland is estimated at almost €500 million and, frighteningly, this year alone, 2,000 premature deaths will be attributed to obesity. Life expectancy of people who are obese at the age of 40 can be reduced by up to seven years when compared with people of a healthy weight.

In response to this startling trend the Government established Ireland's national task force on obesity to set out a strategic framework to identify best practice for prevention, detection and treatment of overweight and obesity and create the social and physical environments that make it easier for children and adults to eat more healthily and be more active on a regular basis.

In advance of the establishment of this task force, the health promotion unit of the Department of Health and Children has been proactively responding to the increase in overweight and obesity through a number of educational and awareness initiatives. These include the 2004 national public awareness campaign to tackle obesity and overweight, Every Step Counts — Small Changes Make the Difference, which highlighted the combined importance of physical activity and healthy eating. Other responses include the publication of a national play policy, Ready, Steady, Play and the National Children's Office is currently working on the development of a national recreation policy for 12 to 18 year olds.

The investment by the Government in recent years towards the implementation of the cardiovascular health strategy has helped put much of the infrastructure in place to address obesity prevention. So far almost €60 million has been invested towards implementing the strategy. Physical activity co-ordinators have been appointed, for the first time, throughout Health Service Executive areas and an additional 36 new community dietitians have also been recruited.

These initiatives have provided us with an excellent starting point for dealing with the issue. However, the report of the task force has provided us with a new focus and challenge which need to be taken up by all relevant stakeholders. The report is trying to empower people to make healthier choices and provide access to a healthier lifestyle, in other words, to make the healthier choice the easier one. It would be remiss of us, as a responsible Government, not to attempt to do this in the face of overwhelming evidence of the risk to health of being overweight and obese.

International experts are referring to an obesogenic environment as a way of describing a world dominated by sedentary pursuits and poor diet. It is the responsibility of Government to take a leadership role in trying to influence and ultimately change this obesogenic environment and we need cross-sectoral support from both private and public sectors in order to do so.

Effective weight management for individuals and groups at risk of developing obesity involves a range of long-term strategies, including prevention, detection, weight maintenance, management of co-morbidities and weight loss. They must be part of an integrated, multisectoral, population-based approach which includes environmental support for healthy diets and regular physical activity. This is a major challenge for Ireland and must include developing public policies that promote the availability and accessibility of a variety of low-fat, high-fibre foods and provide opportunities for physical activity.

The report presents the Government and other key stakeholders with substantial policy challenges, but these are not insurmountable. We have been provided with a clear set of guidelines, a blueprint for the future and we can reach our goal by working together and integrating policies with practical initiatives.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. One could not describe his speech as obese, however; brevity is the soul of wit. This hopefully augurs well for much action on the part of Government on this important issue.

Neither the Government nor legislators can be held responsible for people being obese which is a result of individual changes in lifestyle. The Government has a big role to play, but we should not try to blame it entirely for the rise in obesity. That would be unfair and would smack of a nanny state, with which I would not agree. The Government has a role in highlighting the rise of obesity and its medical side effects, and is wanting in this regard.

It was appalling to read an article in last week's edition of The Irish Times which stated that one in four girls and one in five boys in the five to 12 age group are overweight or obese which puts them at risk of a life dominated by weight problems, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint pain and certain cancers. This is worrying. The Slán report, published by the Department of Health and Children, states that by the end of the decade, obesity levels in Ireland will be the same as those in America. Every second person is overweight and one in eight people in Ireland is obese. Another startling statistic is that 400 children a year are treated in Tallaght Hospital for overeating.

I welcome the report, which I hope will generate a public debate on obesity and make people more aware of the dangers involved. There is a major health risk to obesity. The average life expectancy can reduce by seven years for people who are obese as opposed to those who are a relatively healthy weight.

The Government is lacking in many areas, including in the schools programme. All children attend school and that is an area where the Government can have some in terms of encouraging children to adopt a healthier lifestyle. We cannot expect Ministers to inspect the kitchens in every household and tell mothers and fathers how they should feed their children but the Government has a major role to play in schools, although its record in that area is atrocious.

The report called for a doubling of the time allocated for the teaching of physical education yet there is no mention of the way that should be done. As a former teacher, I am often amused when lobby groups propose, as a solution to a problem, the introduction of some new course in a primary school but I never hear them talk about the subjects that will be dropped or the hours that will have to be cut back. The reality is that many primary schools lack even basic PE halls to deliver their current PE programme. Currently, PE accounts for 4% of the school week here yet according to the OECD report the average should be 8% or 9%.

If we examine the Government's record in this area, it spent €3.5 million on PE halls in 2003, which was half what it spent in 2002. I do not have the figures for 2004 but it represents a drop in the ocean when it is put in the context of the €60 million squandered on e-voting.

More than half of all primary schools do not have a general purpose room and I am sure that those schools that have such a room would probably say it is inadequate. General purpose rooms often do not have a viewing area and in a class of 30 children, if ten are playing five aside and the other 20 are watching, the 20 children watching are put sitting on the side of the PE hall where they are in danger of being hit by a basketball or football.

The previous Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, abolished the annual grant for PE equipment. That grant should be restored and increased, something the INTO called for last week. I support that call.

Last year, the INTO carried out a survey of schools in counties Donegal, Clare, Kerry and Dublin, which ranged from very large primary schools to two-teacher schools. A total of 80% of the schools surveyed in County Donegal did not have a PE hall. The figure for County Clare was 63%, for County Kerry it was 70% and for County Dublin it was 14%. Of those schools that had PE halls it was reported that 60% of them were inadequate, too small for the numbers of pupils and of poor design, leading to safety considerations. The design faults included pillars in the hall or protruding radiators, which I mentioned last week when I called for the Health and Safety Executive to inspect schools. I am always baffled as to the reason architects put radiators on a wall of a PE hall where pupils play games. I am surprised we do not hear of far more injuries.

There is merit in the call by the INTO that vending machines in schools should be banned, although all a school can do in this area is to promote healthy eating. While vending machines may be banned it must be borne in mind that students can use the local shops. Banning vending machines will not address the problem. Schools should not be expected to take on the role of a police authority. They can only promote healthy eating and educate children on the types of food they should eat. Banning vending machines in schools may appear to be a major part of the solution to this problem but that is not the case.

We must examine the labelling of food. For years we were told we should eat many carbohydrates. That appears to have gone out the window now, especially for those on the Atkins diet. We must educate people more about the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins and good and bad fats they should take in every day through their food, as we have seen in many health books lately. The reality is that if most people, including Members of this House, were asked about the number of calories they should take in each day and the amount of fruit and vegetables they should eat, they would not know the answer.

It is ironic that we are debating this subject in the House because I would imagine politicians are an unhealthy group of people in terms of their long working hours, lack of exercise and poor diets, which are not helped by having to attend functions and so on. The fact that these Houses do not have a gym, even though the subject has been spoken about for years, speaks volumes.

Obesity levels will have major implications for our health services. The smoking ban was introduced because we were told it would save people's lives, take pressure off the health services as there would be fewer side effects on both passive and active smokers, and reduce the number of people who smoke. The problem of obesity is another time bomb ticking away and while the Government cannot be held fully accountable for it, it can play a major role in addressing the issue.

We should promote healthy eating and an active lifestyle. That can be done through the schools by adequately resourcing them to provide proper PE halls and in community halls that are open to the public in every village and town. We often hear complaints about teenagers usingskateboards in towns yet the facilities are not provided to allow them engage in that activity.

On arrival in other European countries one is always struck by the beautiful parks where people can enjoy walking. This country is way behind in that regard. I read a startling statistic lately that we now have more golf clubs than parks. As a single man who likes golf, that suits me but it would not suit many families.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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Wait until the Senator has children.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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The Government has a clear role in advertising and explaining the health risks of obesity, including diabetes, heart disease, increased levels of prostate cancer and problems with knees and hips because of the extra weight. It must also allocate funding to primary and secondary schools to promote sports at every opportunity.

The Government must also ensure that people are properly educated in terms of the food types and the amount of food they need, otherwise they will unknowingly continue to eat the wrong types of food. We are all aware of the enormous success of Weight Watchers here and also the book, You Are What You Eat. That is proof that members of the public want to know about the types of food they should eat but unfortunately, with our modern lifestyle, we tend to rush around far more than was the case in the past. We do not eat at home as often as we should and we are eating more processed food, although we can counteract that by informing the public of the type of foods they should eat.

I am not promoting a nanny state or that we should advise the public on every aspect of their lives but we can take realistic steps, such as the provision of PE halls in schools, to address the problem of obesity. The Minister of State comes from a very sporting county, Kildare, but while canvassing in the new housing estates in the recent by-election the one demand made to me was for better facilities, including parks. I was amazed to learn that Maynooth does not have a park. I am not sure about the position in Leixlip and Celbridge. Unfortunately, we have not matched the development in those towns, which became huge urban areas almost overnight because of the economic boom, with proper recreational facilities. That is an area in which we as politicians can and should get involved. The INTO's contribution is sensible. We cannot blame it all on schools but the obvious answer is to blame them for every problem and suggest they run courses on topics such as driving instruction. The reality is that schools have a fixed number of hours each day, and while the curriculum in every school has been increased substantially over the past few years I have never heard anyone suggest reducing the time given to a subject. All schools can do is promote good practice and we should give them every opportunity and resource to enable them to promote a healthy lifestyle and teach PE successfully.

We should learn from the smoking ban. The money we will save in the future due to having fewer smokers in hospitals should be invested in preventing problems arising from obesity in ten or 15 years time.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this timely debate. We have felt the need for it for quite some time as this is not a recent issue. Everybody, especially an adult, has a responsibility for his or her own health, and for children it starts in the home with parental responsibility. I assure the House that neither I nor my wife ever gave our children the price of a takeaway meal at lunchtime. They always got a packed lunch because that was how I was reared. Too often we see children get the price of a bag of chips, a burger, minerals or crisps for lunch when the statistics clearly tell us that is not the appropriate diet for children. We must all accept responsibility as adults, and parents must accept responsibility for what children are taught in the home about healthy eating.

The health services as we know them are reactive and cater for what already exists, such as dealing with people who have heart disease or other conditions as a result of obesity or lifestyle. Let us discuss positive proactive health policy. The report of the national task force on obesity states obesity should be tackled at the highest level, with the Taoiseach's office taking responsibility and providing an integrated and consistent proactive approach to addressing overweight and obesity and implementing, monitoring and evaluating the national strategy on obesity in conjunction with all Departments, relevant bodies and agencies, industry and consumer groups.

The Department of Finance should carry out research to examine the impact of fiscal policy and consumer purchasing on overweight and obesity, such as a risk benefit assessment of taxation that supports healthy eating and active living, and subsidises healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. These are radical suggestions but they are important. Ireland should play an active advocacy role within the EU to reform policy relating to healthy eating and active living, including Government activities on global trade and the regulation of marketing and advertising of food for children.

We all played when we were children. This report recommends that at least two hours of physical education be provided each week to be supervised by teachers with appropriate qualifications. I see nothing wrong with that but it should be in tandem with teachers and educational assistants encouraging children to get involved in activities in playgrounds. Parents and schools have the greatest influence on shaping a child's persona. Every child should be able to achieve a minimum of 30 minutes dedicated physical activity every day in all educational settings, and that should not be difficult given children's nature.

Vending machines should be banned from primary schools and I often wonder why they are allowed. A clear code of practice on the provision and content of vending machines in post-primary schools should be developed by industry, the Department of Education and Science and schools bodies. If vending machines are allowed, what is available from them should be carefully monitored.

The Midland Health Board, of which I was a member for many years, had a healthy eating week every year with poster, leaflet and brochure campaigns but none are so blind as those who will not see. Some people do not wish to note the message of such campaigns. People have a responsibility for their own health and if someone's health breaks down the caring institutions or the Government of the day should not be blamed.

As part of their pre-development planning, all schools should be encouraged to develop consistent school policies to promote healthy and active living with the necessary support from the Department of Education and Science. Such policies should address opportunities for physical activity and what is provided in school meals, as the food that students eat should be monitored. Local GPs have a pivotal role to play. It would be helpful if visits took place to both primary and post-primary schools by public health nurses, dieticians and, if possible, GPs with a role in community care.

The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism should co-ordinate with the Department of Education and Science on the shared use of sports and physical activities facilities by schools and communities. In Mullingar the swimming pool is used extensively by schools, which is as it should be as there is no point in putting public money into sports facilities used by only one club. They should be used by everybody and schools should have high priority when it comes to use, if not first call. Community skills-based programmes should be developed to provide skills such as food preparation, household budgeting and promoting physical activity. We should teach children to cook healthy food and not give them the price of a takeaway meal.

Members of this House are aware that on several occasions over a long period of time I called for a debate on the rising scourge of type 2 diabetes and I am delighted the Minister of State brought with him the statistics on that issue, which are shocking. Overweight contributes to as much as 58% of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes sufferers cause mayhem in clinics throughout the country. However, the real concern is not the number who have been diagnosed, as statistics prove that many people suffer from it but do not know.

I call on the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State, Deputy Power, to establish a national screening programme to ascertain the degree to which type 2 diabetes is prevalent in the community. All one needs to do is contemplate the enormous impact this has on the delivery of health service resources to see it is a serious situation that should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Minister's statistics refer to conditions previously seen only in adults and note that as much as 58% of type 2 diabetes and 21% of heart disease is attributable to excess body fat. Type 2 diabetes is now seen in children, which was never the case before. That people are developing this condition at such an early age is a serious concern. We need to have fire brigade activity to ensure this condition is diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible opportunity.

The health services in their strategic planning and delivery should advocate a change in emphasis from the primacy of individual responsibility to environments that support healthy food choices and regular physical activity. As the Minister of State has mentioned regarding the smoking ban we have proven that this society can undertake things and accomplish them. That is one of the central traits of the Celtic races. When one thinks they cannot do something that is exactly when they can achieve it. That we can be led but not driven is another feature of our existence. Instead of the latest fashion being to buy something that will injure one's health, why not have a takeaway for healthy food? Now that the wheel has started to roll whoever comes up with that outlet first will do well.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Health and Children and the private sector and consumer groups should immediately take multisectoral action on the marketing and advertising of products that contribute to weight gain, particularly those aimed at children. If one goes to any shop and sees the number of additives on a label one should ask oneself whether it should be eaten or put in the dustbin. We must be conscious of our health as each person has responsibility for his or her health.

The Department of Agriculture and Food should review policies in partnership with other Departments to promote access to healthy foods. Such policies should encompass positive discrimination in the provision of grants and funding to local industry in favour of healthy products. This means we should be grant-aiding healthy food and we should tax unhealthy food. It is probably a radical approach but if everything else has failed we should try something different. Guidelines on food and nutrition labelling should be reviewed to ensure that labelling is accurate, consistent, user-friendly and contains information on portion sizes and nutrient content. It is well-known that portion size is closely identified with obesity.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should develop coherent planning policies for urban and rural housing, transport, amenity spaces and workplace settings to encourage spontaneous increases in physical activity in adults and children. We should have a positive health policy. If developments are taking place and a large number of houses are being built we should provide for recreational as well as educational outlets. People have to live somewhere and proper services should be provided with those developments. Now that this report is out it is time the cost of obesity to the public purse was brought to centre stage. This report, which was launched by the Taoiseach and spoken on by Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, is where it belongs, namely, centre stage.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We have a wonderful opportunity to discuss such a good, weighty report, if the pun will be pardoned. Obesity has become a serious problem. Between seven and nine years ago I visited America with my children, who were very young at the time. I had difficulty getting them to take their eyes off overweight people, as they could not believe what they saw. I never thought we would reach the same heights as the Americans reached.

The report shows we now have an obesity problem. I was amazed to read that 39% of Irish adults are estimated to be overweight and 18% are estimated to be obese. The Minister of State has already alluded to the 2,000 premature deaths every year that are a direct result of obesity. In 2003 inpatient costs were a staggering €30 million for one year for patients treated for problems related to obesity. The problem is having detrimental effects on the good work that has taken place in the area of cardiovascular health.

In the past few years much of that good work has been eroded because of people's obesity and weight problems. Type 2 diabetes is another disease that affects overweight people. There are also patients suffering from stroke, gallstones and interrupted sleep patterns as a result of obesity.

Irish society has changed a great deal over the past ten to 15 years. We have greater disposable income and there are more persuasive types of advertising. People are taking far less exercise and are making trips by car, whereas ten or 20 years ago they walked. This is having a serious effect on people's lives. Childhood obesity is the fastest-growing disease in Europe and 327,000 children on the island of Ireland are overweight or obese. The figure is growing annually by 10,500.

The Taoiseach recently spoke about the demise of street games. When one drives into a town or an estate one does not see children playing. As a child growing up in Tullamore, County Offaly, I was on the street morning, noon and night playing games with every other child from the town. We went out at 10 a.m. during summer holidays and would not return until we were called for dinner. We went back out in the afternoon and also at night. We played games such as chase, tig and skipping. A piece of rope would stretch the length of the street and every child would join in. We had nursery rhymes to go with all the activities and there were never any overweight children. We did not have time to gain weight, nor did we have the money.

Running in school yards has been mentioned many times over the past few days. I cannot see any reason children should not be allowed run and play in a school yard. Litigation has to be examined and perhaps there should be discussions with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about what happens when a court awards large sums of money. There was a time when if a child got pushed or fell over in the school yard it was regarded as an accident, but those days are gone. There are no accidents anymore and everything is brought to the courts. This is wrong and there needs to be a change in the justice system.

If a judge is satisfied there was proper supervision in the school yard I do not see why the school can be sued when a child is knocked down in the yard. One cannot provide one-to-one supervision as one would provide at home. As all parents are paying insurance for children in primary and post-primary schools they are covered for insurance reasons if a child does get knocked down. When my children were in primary school there was not a day they did not come home with a cut knee, a cut elbow or a gash on the lip. I had to go to the accident and emergency unit on many occasions but it was treated as an accident, and one warned the child to be a little more gentle at play.

All Irish consumers love biscuits, chocolates and fizzy drinks. Last summer, in France, I was surprised to see the layout of French supermarkets, which is different from Irish ones. Very little shelf space was devoted to biscuits and chocolates in the French supermarkets, but far more space was provided for fruit and vegetables. There is a big difference in this respect between Irish and French supermarkets. We should aspire to change our cultural views on diet, possibly becoming more like Paris and Bordeaux than Pittsburgh and Boston. We should be making whatever changes are necessary in this regard.

I am delighted to hear radio advertisements for affordable gym membership. People can now join gyms at a lower price than before thanks to all the good work Mr. Ben Dunne has achieved. We do not do enough to encourage children and adults to walk, cycle, jog or take other exercise. Recently, I read in the Irish Medical Times that general practitioners are wholeheartedly behind the recommendation on the report of the national task force on obesity. For too long, GPs have been seeking guidelines on weight problems, including obesity. The report recommends that GPs should avail of every opportunity to discuss healthy eating and lifestyle habits with their patients, whether male or female, young or old. I am sure GPs will monitor height, weight and waist measurements. Ante-natal clinics provide doctors with an opportunity to discuss lifestyle skills, including healthy eating and active living, with prospective parents.

At secondary school level, leaving certificate points could be awarded for physical as well as academic achievement. We are all aware of the scourge of suicide among young people but if there was less pressure on youngsters to achieve academic success the situation might improve. Physical activity by students should also be recognised for entry to college. They could, for example, be awarded points for football, hurling, swimming, golf and other sporting endeavours. That would encourage young people to engage in sports and, thus, feel part of the system. Some may not be academically bright, but physically they would have an advantage over others who might be more academically gifted. Sport is a wonderful way of exercising.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to comment on this marvellous report, which I welcome. It is in all our interests to ensure its recommendations are acted upon. This is one report that will not be left on the shelf to gather dust.

4:00 pm

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Labour)
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Senator Feeney spoke about the importance of children playing, an issue on which I would also like to concentrate. I raised the matter in the House last week when the report of the national task force on obesity was first published. I have examined this problem in my local area and have also studied the report on national play policy which was published a few years ago by the National Children's Office. That policy contains an action plan which required local authorities and county development boards to take certain steps. In my own local authority area, however, many of those recommendations have not yet been implemented. The Minister of State spoke about providing grants to local authorities, which is a worthwhile idea, but more needs to be provided. County councils may get the money without putting an overall strategy in place. That is the way the matter has been handled to date by my local authority which does not have a national play officer, although that was one of the recommendations of the policy. The county development board has not done up its plan yet either.

I would take issue with my local authority in this respect. It spent money under the RAPID scheme for disadvantaged areas, but the remainder was spent in an area where the number of children is lower than in other areas. For example, no extra playgrounds were provided in Lucan, yet it has the largest number of children. The money was put into settled areas and, while I agree with that, the local authority has done nothing to provide playgrounds where they are most needed. The Department of Health and Children, other Departments and the National Children's Office should do more to ensure that councils spend funding correctly.

An overall strategy is required, which would encompass the wider picture including children's needs. The question of disadvantage should not be used as an easy way to decide how to spend money. There are many different types of disadvantage. For example, an area could be disadvantaged even though it does not fit the traditional measurements of disadvantage, such as unemployment. Examples of disadvantage emerged in the recent by-elections in Kildare North and Meath. There has been major development in some areas where families with young children have both parents working full-time to pay a mortgage. They must spend part of the day in traffic jams. Such people in new communities could also be considered disadvantaged and, therefore, should receive targeted support, including play facilities. There is a similar community in Lucan where I live. Nonetheless, the type of work that is being done for disadvantaged areas under the RAPID area scheme is also necessary. Such a scheme is operating in Clondalkin in my constituency of Dublin Mid-West.

Senator Feeney spoke about her childhood experiences, and I had a similar experience. When I was young, one could play in the estate and stay out late on summer nights. Children could play in the road in front of their homes then, but it is no longer possible to do so, given the growth in traffic and the restricted space in modern estates. Parents can no longer leave their children out on the road, so we must provide them with suitable recreational facilities. The country has a much higher population, yet there are fewer play facilities than previously.

Local authorities do not invest enough money in neighbourhood play facilities. They tend to put one playground in a big park, which might cover an entire electoral area. Councils are not prepared to invest in smaller playgrounds because of high insurance costs. The national play policy took up this issue and stated there is no evidence that numerous claims arise from the use of playgrounds. Risk management could be undertaken, including the provision of guidelines for the safety of those using play facilities. That is how to tackle insurance costs and ensure claims do not arise. The area needs to be examine further but it appears to be a red herring for local authorities. For example, when some councils received RAPID area funding, they spent it on neighbourhood facilities. In some ways, local councils contradict themselves on the insurance issue but there are many ways of examining it. Sometimes, a local authority can work with the community; an authority might insure playground facilities while estate residents may be willing to raise some of the money for maintaining and monitoring those facilities. Something along those lines was done in County Kerry.

The Taoiseach expressed shock at the finding in the task force's report that play is being curtailed by schools due to the fear of litigation. That had already been pointed out in the national play policy, Ready, Steady, Play, two years ago, where it was stated that play during breaks was becoming increasingly restricted as physical activities such as running, chasing, climbing and ball games were curtailed as a result of fears of injury and litigation.

Risk management comes into play here. The Labour Party has published a document on the funding of primary schools where it identified that insurance has become a major cost for primary schools, often taking up the entire budget, meaning schools must raise funds for other activities. We proposed that the Department of Education and Science helps schools to tackle risk management, with all schools or groups in a particular region working together. The Department might even allow schools to insure themselves. It is not necessarily the answer but it is one way to tackle the problem because the issue must be addressed. The Government and Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children must overcome the problems with insurance in primary schools to ensure that children are not prevented from playing in school.

Not every child wants to or is able to get involved in sport but play is a form of exercise and it is beneficial in many others ways. It does not have the rigid structure and regulation of sport, it is spontaneous and children learn social skills from it. Exercise is the best way to lose weight and it makes people eat in a more healthy fashion. A child out playing during the summer time is less likely to spend time indoors sitting in front of the television eating a snack.

It is vital that we tackle the play for children issue. If children start exercising and eating well at a young age, many problems can be prevented later in life. If we learn anything from this report, it should be to invest wisely in play.

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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I begin by adding my voice to the expressions of congratulations to the task force for producing this timely and valuable report. Since the Government established the task force in March 2004, it has engaged in a detailed process to develop a strategy to halt the rise and reverse the prevalence of obesity in Ireland. This is a most worthwhile pursuit. Under the excellent chairmanship of Mr. John Treacy, the group has carried out a comprehensive and systematic consultation process and its work and this final report are to be commended. I would like to focus on three specific topics: the extent of the problem of obesity in Ireland, the impact and cost for our citizens and the challenge facing society.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the task force for setting out exactly the extent of the problem of obesity in society. None of us will be shocked to hear that the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased with worrying speed over the past 20 years. To hear it described by the World Health Organisation as a global epidemic, however, sets alarm bells ringing. I was astounded to hear the numbers of people who were obese worldwide — more than 300 million in the year 2000. There is a bizarre dichotomy in the world today where 800 million people will go to bed hungry but up to half the population of the United States will be obese by 2025 if current trends continue.

Not that we are in any position to look accusingly at the US. Obesity is now a major public health problem across Europe and in Ireland, where 39% of adults are overweight and 18% are obese. A finding that I find particularly worrying is that there is a higher incidence of the disease in lower socio-economic groups. I will mention the issue of personal responsibility later but the fact that people on lower incomes find it more difficult to eat healthily is a problem we need to look at closely.

The task force's conclusion that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in childhood has generated the greatest comment. Who would have believed, even seven or ten years ago, that body weight would be the most prevalent cause of childhood disease? Given the natural energy and vivaciousness of young children, it is difficult to comprehend estimates that the numbers of Irish children who are significantly overweight have trebled over the past decade.

An aspect of the issue which is not often discussed fully is that of prejudice and I am glad that the task force made salient points on this specific area. According to the report, "Being overweight today not only signals increased risk of medical problems but also exposes people to serious psycho-social problems due mainly to widespread prejudice against fat people". Worryingly, this prejudice against obese people, in the view of the task force, seems to border on the socially acceptable in Ireland. Prejudice is evident in surveys covering groups such as employers, teachers, medical and healthcare personnel and the media. It is to be found among adolescents and children, even the very young. We heard last week of claims of ageism in certain sectors. How many of us consider this sad phenomenon in modern Irish society? Very few. The task force deserves congratulations for highlighting this issue.

Turning to broader health impacts, the findings are less surprising but still of concern. Obesity is associated with premature death, excessive morbidity and serious psycho-social problems. It negatively impacts the welfare of citizens in extremely serious ways. If one looked at the issue in a cold and calculating way, the task force set out that, using the accepted EU environmental cost benefit method, death from weight related illness alone may be costing the State as much as €4 billion per year. For these reasons, the report sees Government intervention as necessary and warranted. What is the Government to do in this regard? The findings of the national task force lead it to conclude that high-level Cabinet support will be necessary to implement the taskforce recommendations. Implementation must be through joined-up thinking and real practical engagement by the public and private sectors. Duplication of effort and cross-purpose approaches must be avoided while existing strategies and agencies must be fully utilised. The report states the range of Departments with roles to play is considerable and specifies the different contributions that each one can make.

I was heartened to hear the Taoiseach accept the report's central proposition that a fundamental policy drive at governmental level is required to develop a society that can enable people to eat healthily and partake in physical activity. I also welcome his assertion that the Government must take a leadership role in this area. There is also a realisation that the Government needs the support of the NGOs, communities, schools, health professionals and the food industry in achieving goals that will protect all generations from illness, psychological problems and premature death.

While I endorse and support such measures, the one important element, that of personal responsibility, must not be lost in this debate. While the topic is a sensitive one, there is no question that obesity is a result of a person's daily lifestyle choices. However, a particular onus of responsibility lies with parents regarding their children's lifestyle choices. As the primary educator, particularly in a child's formative years, parents must be conscious of how they allow their children to behave. This includes the child's eating habits and level of physical activity. The task force report refers to systematic reviews investigating the treatment of obesity and overweight conditions in children. These revealed, among other matters, that targeting parents and children together is most effective in treating obesity and overweight conditions in children. There is a need for programmes where parents take responsibility for behaviour change in the treatment of obesity and overweight conditions in primary schoolchildren.

In the case of adults, we cannot expect the State to intervene purely to replace personal or parental responsibility. The Taoiseach has acknowledged that the task force report presents the Government and other key stakeholders with major policy challenges but these are not insurmountable. The Government has now been provided with a clear set of guidelines. Each Department, State agency, school, family, the media, the food industry and health care professionals all have a role in tackling and curbing this worsening problem. Each of us as individuals must not abdicate our own personal responsibility for our own health and well-being and that of our children.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. I also welcome the valuable report of the national task force on obesity. Its 93 recommendations highlight how simple solutions can be found and be effective in tackling this issue. Since the report's publication, we have seen banner headlines describing obesity as an epidemic and a crisis. However, these are the descriptions of over-enthusiastic journalists and other commentators who have missed the point.

In a short article in The Irish Times, Mr. Maurice Neligan outlines in a practical and sensible way the small matters that can make the difference. While we can talk about a crisis, I do not believe we have reached such a point. Mr. Neligan asked if we could classify obesity as a disease of a prosperous economy. Some will agree but, parallel to this, we have an aging society in which people live longer than before. This should be contrasted with the real crisis during the Famine. How many people died then?

It is claimed that 300,000 people are suffering from obesity with 2,000 related deaths per annum. Are we not going overboard, forgetting the millions dying of starvation in the world? Can we have some balance in debating this issue?

The task force report is welcome but many of its recommendations can be described as simple and practical remedies, provided there is a commitment to implement them. At the launch of the report, the Taoiseach stated the Government was taking a proactive approach to the issue, in the same manner as Ireland led the way with legislation providing for smoke-free work environments.

Are we to embark on a programme of banning certain activities and products? One of the report's recommendations is to ban soft drink dispensers in schools. This makes me wonder if it is authentic and genuine in intent. Where was the survey to which it alludes undertaken? I could go a long way in the west to find a national school where anything other than water, often of poor quality, is dispensed. Those members of the task force who agreed to these recommendations must be far removed from the reality of what is available in our schools. For example, again this week, newspaper headlines have focussed on the quality of school accommodation.

This situation is over-hyped. As a result, some over-enthusiastic school personnel have searched children's bags to see if they had Coca Cola or a packet of crisps for lunch. This does nothing to help in our attempts to address the problem.

The Government must be committed to deal with this issue in a small and practicable way. How many primary schools have functional physical education halls? They were provided for in the construction plans for many new schools. However, no sooner had the schools opened then the halls were subdivided to provide extra classrooms. The idea that physical education was to become an integral part of school activity was thrown out the window. Let us call a spade a spade. How many schools has the Taoiseach visited, where he has seen a functioning physical education hall? The task force recommends children be involved in a minimum of 30 minutes of activity twice weekly. The reality is that schools do not have time for that. They are being told to make time for it, but if they do, people ask why children are out at play for so long and not in class, doing the work they should be doing. On the one hand we have pious platitudes while the reality is we do not make the necessary provision. The Minister for Education and Science has not provided for this situation in terms of more physical education being possible in schools.

When, on occasion, there are celebrations in schools, teachers and schools are often praised for the work they do in games and PE. In reality, all that is done outside school hours when the teachers are working in the community with children. Throughout the country we have many community halls and facilities of various kinds which are bolted up all week and not utilised. I suggest that the Government give schools a direct grant so they could talk to the trustees of those halls, rent them and pay for the public liability insurance. That is a simple, practical matter. It costs money, but the commitment given by the Taoiseach will involve cost, whether the funds come from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Education and Science, or Health and Children. Why not involve all three Departments?

I was a health board member for about ten years, and all the reports and papers which the board drew up over a period of time cost time, money and personnel resources which could have been otherwise engaged. I am not saying the personnel were not gainfully engaged, but they could have been otherwise engaged. A wise spending policy within the Department would allow for many of the recommendations in the task force report to be easily implemented. Personnel might look at the budget provided and transfer it accordingly. A fraction of the €340 million being devoted to this area over a period of time could be diverted to the provision of facilities, or access to facilities, for children at primary and secondary schools.

We are regularly told that young people are more interested in watching TV than in physical activity. That is nonsense. Such statements are made by people totally removed from reality. If one were to go round the country today one would see thousands of children actively involved in games and PE. This is not within the context of the schools, because of the pressures involved there. I spent years working in the classroom. When one took children on a field trip, a school excursion or whatever it might be, one's heart was in one's mouth until all returned safely. Nevertheless, whatever children remember of the school year, they remember the field trips, or the day they went to the Aran Islands, the Burren, or wherever they may have gone. That is a sure indication that children are favourably disposed to activity when the opportunity is presented. Such an opportunity will present itself only when resources are provided in a meaningful way, with the facilities available utilised in a meaningful way. I know the commitment is there from the voluntary organisations, from the teaching staff and from parents who commit a great deal of time to such activities.

Next Saturday in Tullamore, the athletics finals of the national schools will take place. There one will see some of the finest up and coming athletes. Whether the sports involve track and field events or others, the majority of those children, boys and girls, will present themselves there not through the initiative of the Department of Education and Science or the Government, but because of their dedication, as well as the dedication of their parents who bring them everywhere, and that of their teachers, who prepared them and brought them to the standards they have reached.

For those who say we have an epidemic or a crisis, it would be a good exercise to visit Tullamore on Saturday to see the reality, the cream of the student athletic body, and consider all those who participated in the event. We must not forget how many of their peer group could have benefitted if we had proper facilities and equipment within the school structures. I ask the Minister of State, in consultation with the Minister for Education and Science, and the Minister for Health and Children, to consider the situation and provide resources so people can participate in such activities.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad we are having this debate because it is one we should have in all walks of life. If nothing else, the task force on obesity has opened up the opportunity to create an awareness which has not been present up to now.

Previous speakers said there is no epidemic of obesity. Nevertheless, we are aware that obesity is a serious problem in this country. It affects the health of so many people that it is difficult to believe that all the problems can be traced back to weight issues. I too read the report by Professor Neligan. He is right in what he says. I am a practical and common sense person but it must be said that if people are overweight, we will have cardiac problems, hypertension, diabetes and physical inactivity, with people feeling lazy and lethargic, and unable to perform well in class or in jobs.

I come from an educational background and I can see the situation involving children who are obese and overweight as distinct from those who are fine, thin and energetic. One can see the difference in their learning behaviour. This problem must be debated and I want it debated in all walks of life. Whether we like it or not, we must talk about statistics. More than 2,000 premature deaths are linked annually to obesity. Some 39% of Irish adults are said to be overweight while 18% are classified as obese. The trends have to give rise to concern. It is estimated that if we do not curtail certain lifestyles, the level of adult obesity will increase by 1% annually. I did not pull these statements out of the air. They are facts. Research has been conducted on the matter. The task force recommendations have brought this issue to the fore.

I will concentrate on the education of children because that is what I know best. Though it is difficult to gauge, it has been said that more than 300,000 children on this island are now overweight. The impact on health is very significant in terms of the personal dimension and the financial cost. I have heard others refer to the World Health Organisation, which describes obesity as a global epidemic. I do not want to use words like these because I feel they are over the top. At the same time, however, it is important to note that obesity is gripping our shores.

The question is where we go from here. How do we introduce preventive measures? I have been hard on parents on several issues lately and I believe they are not taking responsibility in this area either. It is not their fault, however, because society and lifestyles have changed greatly. Parents often arrive home late in the evening and do not know how to prepare a balanced, nutritious meal. When they are preparing lunches for their children they include take-away foods, processed meats, fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits and chocolates. I would not, as a teacher, dare to criticise because parents have a right to decide on the contents of a lunch box. However, in the past, children were very lucky to get an apple, bread and butter and milk for their lunch. We need to go back to the more simple ways.

Some will say that parents do not have sufficient time but they have the time to change the type of food they put into lunch boxes and to prepare a proper meal with meat, vegetables and potatoes. Incidentally, potatoes seem to have gone out the window; people do not boil potatoes today. Young people are dictating to their parents regarding the evening meal. Parents are afraid to say no because they do not have quality time with their children, so they try to please them by giving in. In other words, parents are trying to make up for the time they have lost with their children. Many latchkey students are told by their parents to pick up A, B or C from McDonalds or Superquinn on their way home from school. Many 14 and 15 year olds are feeding themselves and it is not their fault. The fault lies with the lifestyle and work routines of their parents. Society has changed fundamentally in this regard and the change is not beneficial to the next generation.

Parents have a major role in tackling obesity, but they are not alone. We need a collective approach, with teachers educating children from fourth class in primary schools, in a formal, timetabled way on diet and nutrition. An educational leaflet should be sent to parents at the beginning of every school year indicating the best types of foods to include in children's lunch boxes. Schools could recommend healthy foods, as highlighted by nutritionists.

I am not sure if the old ICA classes still exist, but they were very beneficial. The ICA ran health and cookery classes in rural communities. Is this way of life gone, where parents are taught how to cook simple meals? I agree with Senator Ulick Burke when he says that simple ways are the way forward. We do not need large amounts of money to get this message across. Resources are not required to tackle this issue. The obesity problem is about education, information and efforts by parents to create a healthy way of life for their children and for themselves.

People should exercise more. They should try to walk in the evenings if they cannot get into a gym. Parents should encourage their children to take part in sporting activities, even if there is a risk factor involved. The issue of sport and litigation must be tackled in this regard. I saw a television programme recently where teachers had introduced a skipping programme into a primary school. I would like to see more of that kind of activity because not everyone wants to be, or can be, a great athlete or hurler. However, some form of activity is necessary for everyone.

We have become television addicts. Children come home in the evening and use the remote control to surf up to 30 channels. That is all they do when their school work is finished. One seldom sees children out and about, playing games in their own areas. Perhaps local authorities should examine the possibility of providing more open spaces. However, the new policy seems to be in favour of high density apartments with even fewer open spaces.

Educational authorities have a major role to play in tackling obesity. Collective responsibility is required. There must be co-operation between educationalists, parents and medical professionals. A national awareness campaign must be conducted because while this is a challenging problem, it is not insurmountable. The task force has produced guidelines but the Government cannot do everything. It can take the lead, but that lead must be taken up by other agencies, bodies and above all, by parents.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and the words he used, particularly the word "leadership". As Senators Ormonde, Ulick Burke and others have said, the answer to this problem is in our own hands to a large extent. This is not something we can pass laws on, it is something we can deal with ourselves.

As an operator of supermarkets, I have known about this problem for years. I am on the board of the Food Marketing Institute in the United States and the board regularly meets the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America. Both those bodies have identified business opportunities in this issue because the sense of concern among parents is growing. There is a business opportunity in another sense because of the fear of what may happen in the future. It is not too long ago that people smoked without thinking twice about it, or at least those who sold cigarettes did not consider their responsibilities. Governments around the world started to tackle the smoking problem and now tobacco companies are fearful of litigation. Likewise, those in the food industry, particularly in the US, are worried about class action activity that could result in both producers and sellers of food being sued. There is a business opportunity for those who identify and then address the concerns of customers. Supermarkets and restaurants in the US and elsewhere have recognised this business opportunity and are also afraid of being sued.

I hope the report of the national task force on obesity will become a spur to action, not simply a talking point that fades away after a few weeks. The report addresses the fundamental question of what quality of life we choose for ourselves and our children. Of all the comments I have heard and read since the report's publication, what resonated most was what Senator Ormonde said, namely that parents are crucial. Parents have a huge amount of control over what their children and families eat. That has changed in recent times because of a new factor in parenthood, whereby both parents are working. This means they are cash-rich and time-poor. The limited time available to parents means that the speed with which they can produce meals takes precedence over any other concerns.

The answer is not just in parents' hands, it is in everyone's hands. I love Hallowe'en and my wife and I invariably stay at home at Hallowe'en, waiting for the children to call. In recent years we have found that our apples and nuts are not welcomed by the children. Children do not call looking for apples and nuts anymore. We have been very naughty as a result and now make sure that there are plenty of sweets available. As adults, we should behave better and should recognise that we have a responsibility to behave differently.

Let me tell the story of something that happened in my company some 25 years ago. A customer came to me and asked me if I had ever shopped with three-year old twin boys. When I replied that I had not, she told me that she took a Valium every day, but that on Tuesdays when she went shopping with her twins she took three because shopping was just hell, particularly when they got to the check-outs. She was trying to keep them away from sweets, but all supermarkets displayed sweets at the check-outs.

We removed sweets from the check-out area then, which was easy to do 25 years ago. I had a row with the accountants at the time because they thought I did not realise how much such a move was costing me. The reason we made the change was to ensure customers would have a better shopping experience and that they would come back to us, even if it did hurt immediate profits. Even at that stage, customers identified that they were unhappy feeding unhealthy treats to their children. This phenomenon is not new. It was clear to me that the decision I made was a good long-term rather than short-term business decision; parents said they liked going to my supermarket because they did not get sweets at the check-outs and, therefore, had less hassle. It seems the answer is in our own hands, whether we are parents, in business or ordinary citizens.

Members will no doubt be delighted to hear that I do not agree with the argument that we should pass laws to do something about obesity. The answer is in the hands of citizens. Therefore, I was pleased to hear the Minister of State talk about leadership and doing something about it on that basis. We have a job of selling the health reasons to curb obesity to the public. The task force report and this debate will help sell those reasons for us. It is up to the Government to sell the health reasons to the people rather than to pass laws.

When the situation is pointed out to citizens, they will put their children before the benefit of fast unhealthy foods. We must continue to invest in the message to parents that their children's diet is vitally important to their future and that of their children's children, because I am sure good health is inherited in some way. If we can convince parents of that, they will make the extra effort to feed their children a healthier diet.

The other side of the obesity coin has to do with exercise, or rather, the lack of exercise. Our change in lifestyle has produced some detrimental results. There was a time when most of our children walked or cycled to school. Now, for a variety of good reasons, most children are driven to school. That change has made a tremendous difference to the quality of physical exercise children get. I was delighted to see there are now "pedestrian buses" in some areas, where children hold hands and walk to school in a supervised group. That is a great answer to encourage people unwilling to risk the walk to school alone to take exercise.

A change that could make a tremendous difference is quality physical exercise for young people. I was involved with the leaving certificate applied programme for some years. One of my priorities was to get more attention paid to physical education and to ensure sports were part of the curriculum. I had two reasons for this. First, I believe the fitter one's body is, the fitter one's mind will be. Second, sport and physical activity often offer children a way of excelling. That success can give them confidence in other areas and spills over into other aspects of their lives. When I entered the leaving certificate arena with those ideas, I was shocked to find how badly equipped were the majority of secondary schools. In most secondary schools today physical education is a joke. It was, therefore, no great surprise to me to hear last week that the situation in primary schools is just as bad, if not worse.

I share the amazement of the Minister for Education and Science at the stories of young children not being allowed to run in school playgrounds at break time because of the fear that they will be injured and compensation claims will be made against the school. Like the diets of the children, this is a situation that has been allowed to come about because we did not fully understand the consequence of what we were doing. Since the publication of the report of the task force on obesity, we can no longer make that claim. If we allow these problems to persist, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We can no longer say we did not know about them. The writing is clearly on the wall for everybody to see. The only question is whether we will read it and take the necessary action to do something about it.

I am delighted we are having this debate today. What has been said will be useful, in particular the Minister of State's words on leadership. The task is for us to ensure we spread the message far and wide with the determination to ensure it is understood by everybody concerned. I welcome the debate and the Minister of State's comments. His heart is in it and if we all grab the opportunity, we will be able to make a difference.

Margaret Cox (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this report. While I know the Minister of State is a practical man, sometimes I wonder when I read a speech whether the person making the speech sees the real issue. In his paragraph on joined-up action he said: "The problem is of such complexity that a co-ordinated, cohesive approach across many sectors is required before we will see any change in the prevalence of obesity."

These words are of no use unless action is taken, and the Minister of State is a man of action. It is about making simple changes that make a difference. A judo club started up in a Galway suburb last year. The club pays the local authority the going rate for the hire of its hall, approximately €20 an hour, for three to four hours one evening a week. Some 50 or 60 young children attend the judo classes from both middle class and poorer areas. Judo is a new sport there and an important Olympic sport. The club is now in debt and has an overdraft because of the rental it must pay to the local authority for the use of the facility to provide the service. The club members, mothers and fathers involved, give of their free time. All they need from us or the local authority is a helping hand with the rent for the hall or half of it. The children are charged €4 per night. Anybody with children involved in sports knows that if it is €4 for one activity and the same for another, that is all people can afford. Even at €4, it becomes expensive for those with more than one child who must pay out every week.

I suggest we show how committed we are. I believe we are committed and that we will face this head on as a result of this good report which outlines the problem. Let us set up a fund which is accessible and non-bureaucratic and where people do not have to fill in an application form for lottery funding. All people should have to prove should be that they have young people availing of an activity-based sport, that they have the proper structures in terms of insurance and a governing committee. We should provide some sort of continual funding for such activities to ensure that clubs such as this judo club do not end up in debt. It would be just a small amount of money every year for this little club in Galway.

We should put our money into small projects all over the country. There should be no bureaucracy with regard to this funding. The lottery funding is marvellous, but it is for capital for buying or leasing a building. These small clubs are run by parents and adults throughout the country on a voluntary basis. Often, they spend more time fund raising to keep the club going than they spend with the children, which does not make sense. We need to consider small actions which can have a great impact. We should establish an annual fund, for example. When successful applications are made under the fund, people should be given a commitment that they will be given a small amount of money to make life easier for them.

Another practical aspect of this issue that needs to be debated is the sharing of resources. When I listened to the radio on the morning this report was published, I heard a person talking about going for a run in a GAA field beside a school. It makes sense for schools to be able to avail of local facilities which are not used during the day. I refer to municipal facilities, GAA facilities and soccer club facilities, for example. Perhaps such clubs could receive a small amount of money in return, to help them with ordinary running costs. Everybody will benefit if resources are shared, rather than wasted. We do not need playing pitches and large facilities in every corner of the land. We need to share facilities. General purpose halls in schools should be available to interested groups in the evenings. It is not right that every little kingdom that is built is guarded closely to ensure that nobody else can enter it.

I would like to discuss the role of local authorities in facilitating exercise. When one drives around the country, one notices many new playgrounds in towns and villages. Local authorities have worked hard to develop playgrounds. There were just two playgrounds in Galway city five years ago, but there are approximately 12 playgrounds in the city area at present. Playgrounds are also springing up in the Galway County Council area. Children can avail of play facilities because money has been invested in every little town.

The Minister of State spoke about the need for a joined-up approach. Ireland should be promoted internally and externally as a tourism location that is suitable for children. We should make sure everyone knows there are many things to do at the playgrounds which are found throughout the country. If I intend to spend a weekend in County Kilkenny or County Donegal, I should be able to find details of outdoor facilities in such locations which are suitable for children on a single website.

I refer to beaches and public areas where one can kick a ball, for example. There is a skateboard area in the magnificent millennium park in Galway. I assume many people who have visited Galway do not know anything about it. Many of those who access tourism websites before they visit Galway may be seeking information about facilities for children. They will pack their roller blades and skates if they know there are places where they can be used. Such initiatives are necessary if we are to get children to be active. We can make progress in this regard by making exercise fun and supporting those who are promoting exercise.

Senator Quinn spoke about the amazing idea of pedestrian buses. I saw a photograph in a newspaper last week of a line of children wearing luminous jackets. They were being led by a number of parents, who I assume offer their services on the basis of a rota, as they were walking to school. Such initiatives will work successfully in urban areas, but it would be hard to operate a pedestrian bus in a rural community. We should foster this brilliant idea, in which many people would like to get involved.

I am not sure whether Senators have mentioned the problems which arise when schools withdraw physical education classes as a form of punishment. The Minister for Education and Science has said she does not think it is an appropriate method of punishment. The Department needs to make it clear to schools where such forms of punishment are being used that they cannot continue to do so. Children should not be threatened with not being allowed to participate in physical education classes if they are bold. If children are bold, it is not fair or right to forbid them from enjoying such classes.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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It is more likely that they cannot participate in such classes because there are no physical education halls.

Margaret Cox (Fianna Fail)
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We need to send out a single educational message if we are to develop exercise programmes. We should help local authorities to assist clubs which are offering activities to young people and adults and increasing the involvement of communities in exercise. We need to get rid of the bureaucracy. It is important that resources are shared.

I would like to discuss the importance of diet. A comprehensive programme should be put in place to ensure that school authorities work with parents to combat the peer pressure that leads to young people demanding certain types of nibbles. I refer to small processed cheeseburgers and cheese sticks which are not good for children. Children encounter peer pressure when they start to compare what they have been given for lunch. We should go back to the good old days when children were given a piece of fruit, a sandwich and a drink for lunch. I do not refer to fizzy drinks, which are taken to school by many children. School authorities should adopt and implement a policy of not allowing pupils to take fizzy drinks to school. Many parents will argue it is ridiculous to prohibit such drinks, but I think such a policy should be implemented by the Department of Education and Science as part of a carrot and stick approach.

It is great to see the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, in the House today. I ask those who are reflecting on the joined-up approach to consider its practicalities and to forget about bureaucracy. We need to consider the easiest way to make an impact over the next couple of months and into the next couple of years. It is important that we should start to make changes immediately.

5:00 pm

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House for this important debate. Some people have already responded to the report of the national task force on obesity, which represents a wake-up call. I spoke to some teachers of my acquaintance who were quite shocked about the extent of the report's evidence of the unhealthiness of the diets of this country's children. I echo the remarks of Senator Quinn, who asked what we propose to do about this problem, now that we know about the extent of it. I do not agree with Senator Ulick Burke that the report is over the top. I accept that he did not say the report was scaremongering, but that is what I took from his comments.

We need to consider the form of action we will take in respect of this serious issue. As the Minister of State said, some 39% of Irish adults are overweight and 18% of them are obese. Children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. There is clear evidence that Ireland has turned into an unhealthy nation. How do we ensure that Ireland becomes a healthy nation once more? I suggest that we take a series of small measures, the most important of which is an examination of Ireland's relationship with food and attitude to being healthy. We should create a culture that promotes the notion of healthy bodies in adults as well as children. We do not need to look too far for examples of people who have very unhealthy lifestyles. It can take a great deal of planning to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It can be a struggle to get up early to go for a walk and to eat properly and regularly, rather than reverting to processed snacks which are full of refined sugar and have a high fat content.

As the mother of a 12 year old daughter, I know it can be a constant battle to ensure that one's children have a healthy diet. One faces unending pressure to give them food like crisps, sweets, chips, nuggets and burgers. That children are rewarded by being given unhealthy food such as sweets, or being treated to a visit to McDonald's or Burger King, is a telling indication of our relationship with food. It would be useful to bring about a transformation in that attitude, but it will not be easy because it has been instilled over generations. The availability of sweet, processed and fattening food has increased significantly. When my generation was growing up, it was rare that one would be given such food, but the current generation seems to eat it every day.

Senator Quinn rightly pointed out that modern forms of lifestyle — in many families, both parents are working — puts a great deal of pressure on people to make time to produce healthy food. We all know that many secondary school pupils have "pub grub", including a portion of chips, for their lunch. While that is simply accepted, it adds to the sense of unhealthy eating.

I agree with Senator Cox that schools have a significant role to play. I would go so far as to suggest schools should ban unhealthy food and allow only health food. The intake of refined sugars, processed foods and, in particular, fat should be cut down. We must create an environment which promotes a healthy body.

I hope health promotions will result from this report. Role models should play a part in any advertising campaign and these should be people known to have high regard for a healthy body. We do not have a high regard for what healthiness is, namely, a healthy body, a healthy mind and the confidence and better feeling that results from taking exercise. Such healthiness is not actively promoted. It might be promoted a little in schools but this does not work through all the messages that children, in particular, receive.

Senator Ormonde had a go at parents, suggesting they are responsible for the problem. While I accept parents are responsible for the problem, many do not know how to generate a healthy diet. It is not simply a question of giving out leaflets. We must work hard to educate people as to what is good and not good, because they do not know. They do not read the labels on foodproducts and do not know, for example, that monosodium glutamate is not a good product to consume on a regular basis, or about the amount of added sugars and fats in many products widely available in supermarkets.

A friend of mine suffers from type 2 diabetes. Due to attending education programmes and seminars, she is now aware of what goes into day-in, day-out products which, for her, are quite dangerous. However, we know from figures provided to the House by the Minister that many people are on the way to getting diabetes but do not know about it. We have a lot of work to do to educate the public.

While I applaud Senator Quinn for the responsibility he took with regard to his company, the food industry has a lot to answer for. The Government needs to accept this before we can move to make the industry more responsible, particularly with regard to advertising and labelling. Much work has been done on such issues, in particular by the European Union, with the result that information on packets is now far more extensive than previously, and, therefore, consumers have a choice. However, we are constantly bombarded with foods that are, in many cases, dangerous.

Children do not know that, preferably, they should eat two raw items of food every day. Many people, including children, do not eat any raw fruit and the notion of eating raw vegetables is like a joke. Therefore, this is the level at which promotion is needed. We must promote healthy food and give a bad press to unhealthy food.

My daughter and I recently watched "Super Size Me", the extraordinary documentary from the United States about McDonald's. It would put anybody off that kind of food. However, the week after watching the documentary, my daughter told me that she and fellow pupils went to McDonald's following a school trip. It is very hard to combat such habits. There is no question but that children are a mirror of their parent's lifestyles.

I welcome Senator Minihan's point about the stigma of being overweight, which is undoubtedly correct. If nothing else, we need to recognise that for children to be overweight is a dreadful legacy for them as they enter their teenage years or adulthood with a problem for which they never asked, and for which their parents and the community are responsible. Children will be stigmatised and blamed as time passes. There is extraordinary irony to the fact that while we have a problem with obesity, anorexia is also an issue for some teenage girls. The question of body image must be considered.

To return to my core point, our responsibility is to promote a sense of healthiness, namely, a healthy body, a healthy mind and a healthy approach to what we put into our bodies. We have laws which state it is wrong to put unleaded petrol in cars but none which state it is bad to put processed food into our bodies. We must create an environment in which people ask themselves whether what they eat is good for their bodies and health in the long run.

Some time back, perhaps during the last Seanad, we discussed the alarming increase in cancers, diabetes and heart disease in the Western world, which is connected to lifestyle and the food people regularly consume. A solution to the problem would have a significant pay-off for the Exchequer in that the cost of obesity and bad health is an enormous burden for us to bear. If for no other reason, we should take this important matter seriously. I look forward to the Minister coming back to the House with an action plan for Members to debate which has at its heart a proactive approach to being healthy, and which can help transform us from being an unhealthy nation to a healthy nation, a fact of which we could be proud.

Brendan Daly (Fianna Fail)
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As I have had a cold in recent days, I might be a bad advertisement for a debate on health. However, the debate provides the opportunity to raise important issues. I am glad the Minister of State made a concise and decisive speech because it might encourage us to read more fully the task force report, which draws attention to important matters that should be addressed quickly.

As you will be aware, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I have been a member of the General Assembly of the Council of Europe for a number of years. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Council of Europe, with the European Commission and the European regional body of the World Health Organisation, has taken many initiatives over the years. Some 20 years ago, it introduced an initiative, the European Network of Health Promoting Schools, which has been demonstrated to be very successful in linking health issues with educational experience. It has been scientifically proven by experts that disease is acquired and that pre-school and school years are the major sources of serious adult illnesses. For this reason, it is important that we would in discussing this issue try to forge a closer harmony and link between the worlds of health and education, including between the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science. My contribution is made with the above points in mind.

I do not want to examine the report in great detail other than to note it highlights the necessity to further promote in Ireland the European Network of Health Promoting Schools — I accept that some schools are already involved in that network, which has been the subject of numerous discussions at the Council of Europe's Committee of Culture, Science and Education and the General Assembly.

Increasingly, the emphasis seems to be on creating greater awareness among parents, teachers, educationalists and the health promoting agencies of Departments, including that of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. Their coming together would have a major beneficial impact on the health and lifestyle of thousands of people, not only in Ireland but across the European Community.

The objective of balanced development is the task of the schools. In addition to imparting knowledge, schools also have a responsibility to provide a balanced education which takes account of health issues. This includes the matter of desk design, which apparently has been the subject of much criticism for the damage it has caused to people's backs, hips and livers.

A wealth of scientific information and research exists which necessitates a closer liaison between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science. The matter should be given more attention, especially in the training colleges. The experience gained from the 20 years of work done by the European Network of Health Promoting Schools should be made available and be incorporated into methods used in training colleges and health promoting agencies.

A variety of documentation, leaflets and publications deal with health promotion inside and outside of schools. It will be an exercise and will not have the desired effect unless a legal framework is put in place to support the findings. It is necessary to consider establishing a statutory system of health promotion to counterbalance the very damaging results of what is taking place in our schools.

There has been a widespread escalation in the number of computers in primary schools. An opinion is being canvassed with regard to the pressures on young children in terms of these computers. We have all encouraged the creation of a greater awareness of the importance of technology with regard to industry, etc. However, this has placed pressure on children which leads to problems later in life. There is no real evidence to back up this assertion because the situation has not existed for a sufficient time. Perhaps the Minister of State would consider the effects this might have on young people's health and sight now and when they are older. It might be wise to do so before we further embark on promoting technology, particularly in pre-schools and national schools.

I have mentioned the issues regarding school furniture, computers and the design of school buildings. Some of the literature published by the European Network of Health Promoting Schools has endeavoured to encourage people to look up rather than down by placing images on the ceilings. We in the Seanad are ahead in this regard because we have some ornate designs on the ceiling. Young people are being encouraged to look upwards and stand upright which will be important for their hips and backs in later life.

Perhaps the Minister of State thinks I am rambling on somewhat. I came to the House today to emphasise and draw his attention to the work that is being done by the Council of Europe, the World Health Organisation and the European Commission in respect of the European Network of Health Promoting Schools. More than 40 countries partake in the network which was established 20 years ago and initially involved 12 countries. Some Irish schools are currently involved. The Minister of State should talk to his colleague at the Department of Education and Science because the evidence is very damaging and serious in respect of the long-term health prospects for the younger generation. It is imperative and timely to have a debate of this nature in the House. We should consider other approaches, such as the studies undertaken in Europe and through the World Health Organisation.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Seanad for giving its time and considerable experience to focus on this report. I had no difficulty listening to Senator Daly's contribution and found it quite interesting. There was a conference last week in Dublin regarding health promoting hospitals, which is a relatively new initiative and one that works extremely well. There is no reason it would not prove as successful in schools and the Senator outlined and quantified its success.

The Senators were generally very positive in receiving and welcoming the report and a number put forward their own suggestions as to how we might implement some of its recommendations in addition to making some of their own. Two Members raised particular issues. Senator Cox had some difficulty with part of the report but I cannot understand why. The problem of obesity is fairly complex and there is no easy, single solution that will achieve the desired success. A number of sectors are involved, including communities, NGOs, schools, parents and the food industry. We are seeking a combined effort that will bring all sectors together to work as a team in dealing with the problem. It is as simple as that.

Senator Ulick Burke quoted from the Taoiseach's contribution at the launch of the report last week when mention was made of banning vending machines from primary schools. The Taoiseach emphasised that he is not in favour of trying to bring in legislation or enforce new rules on people. He wants all stakeholders involved to engage, in a spirit of co-operation, as a team in addressing the issue.

Much work is required to stem this "epidemic", a term used by the World Health Organisation. People can acknowledge it as a worldwide epidemic which does not apply to Ireland. However, that is immaterial. The evidence shows we have a very serious problem on our hands.

I salute the great work carried out by the task force under the chair of Mr. John Treacy. The best way in which to thank him is to take immediate action and implement the report's recommendations. The report, which will hopefully have far-reaching, positive benefits, was prepared in a thoughtful and methodical manner. An extensive consultation process was undertaken and information was gathered and assessed from national and international policies, experience and evidence which ultimately culminated in a report based on the principle of equity, people-centredness, equality and accountability.

People have a fundamental right to choose to eat what they want and to be as active as they wish. However, that is not the issue. The national task force on obesity's report takes account of the many forces that actively impede change for those who are already aware of the consequences of overweight and obesity in terms of potential health and well-being for themselves and their families. While the main focus of the report is on prevention, it makes important recommendations in respect of treatment and detection, including the clinical management of overweight and obesity in both adults and children.

It is clear that halting the rise in levels of overweight and obesity presents a major challenge and this can only be met by a concerted effort by everyone to protect future generations from inevitable premature death, ill health, psycho-social problems and projected adverse economic costs. The report takes a practical, realistic and achievable approach to some fundamental issues. The principle of joined-up action is central and many of the recommendations can be implemented if Departments, NGOs and commercial enterprises give due regard to some of the guidelines contained in the report when preparing service plans, marketing and development programmes and implementing services. It is imperative, however, that the Government takes responsibility and ultimately a leadership role in tackling this substantial intricate challenge.

The report's 93 recommendations relate to actions across six broad sectors: high level Government; education; social and community; health food commodities; production and supply; and the physical environment. Many of the contributions of Senators were concerned about those sectors. The high level goals recommended by the task force set out a framework or roadmap of the way the issues identified by many Senators can be addressed.

The task force high level goals are that an integrated, consistent and proactive approach be taken across all Departments, agencies and public bodies in addressing the problem of overweight and obesity. It also recommends that the private sector should play an important role and acknowledge that it has a responsibility and will be proactive in addressing the issue of overweight and obesity and that the public and private sectors and the community and voluntary sectors should work in partnership to promote healthy eating and active living to address overweight and obesity. It also recommends that individuals should be personally empowered to tackle overweight and obesity and that sensitive interventions should be developed to support them.

This is a challenge for the Government, the private and public sectors and the commercial sector. As has been pointed out by a number of Senators, action is being taken in a number of areas and we should acknowledge that some schools have been forward thinking in the way they have dealt with the problem. They have encouraged healthy eating without overdoing it. We were all children and we know what it is like to enjoy sweets, snacks and drinks but it is important that is done in moderation. The schools have played a role in making children aware of the need for healthy eating. We depend on parents to educate their children but this is one area where the children can educate their parents about healthy eating when they come home from school. Senator O'Meara pointed out that many parents are not aware of the type of foods that are healthy for their children. Our challenge is to educate those parents and make them more aware of the importance of feeding their children properly.

Mention was made also of the need for physical activity. That is an issue we are examining. Senator Ulick Burke said that the lack of PE facilities in schools is preventing children partaking in physical activity. As a former teacher he recalled that the day most fondly remembered by his former students was the field trip in which they participated.

There are many excuses not to partake in physical activity, whether it is climbing mountains, walking in fields or on beaches. There are many opportunities to partake in physical activity and people should not make excuses in that regard. We are not living in an ideal world. We have to try to make the most of what we have available to us. Our climate is very conducive to outdoor physical activity.

A number of Senators mentioned the importance of sport in schools but we must differentiate between sport and physical activity. Unfortunately, many of the sporting activities in schools relate to team events. A soccer team needs 11 players and rugby, Gaelic football or hurling team requires 15 players; a smaller number is needed for camogie. Students often feel that if they are not on the first team they are not participating properly in the sport, even though they may get involved in the training and so on. We must examine other areas where greater participation can be promoted because it is all about encouraging students to participate. They do not all have to be on the first team to engage in meaningful physical activity. That is something schools will have to consider and encourage in a more meaningful way.

The task force has presented the Government and other key stakeholders with major policy challenges. I am confident that using the roadmap suggested by the task force, under the leadership of the Government and in partnership with key stakeholders in the public and private sectors, the task force's vision of an Irish society that enables people through health promotion and care to achieve and maintain healthy eating and active living throughout their lifespan is achievable. I will bring the report before the Cabinet in the near future. The problem has been studied and identified. We now know what needs to be done and I will ensure, as best I can, that the necessary action is taken as quickly as possible. I thank the Senators for their contributions.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.