Seanad debates

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

4:00 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State and thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to address this motion on the Adjournment. There is a need to draw up a plan to combat obesity which is reaching epidemic proportions. As the Minister of State will be aware, with 14 of my colleagues, I have just completed successfully the "Operation Transformation" programme on RTE which touched a nerve among the public. Some 500,000 people watched the programme and there were over 3 million hits on the website.

We need to hear from the Minister of State on the plans the Government has for combating a growing problem which will cost lives and us in terms of the provision of hospital beds and resources, but for which there is a ready-made solution. Obesity levels are escalating; the statistics drawn from the national task force on obesity are frightening. Some 39% of the population are overweight, while 18% are obese. Ireland has the fourth highest rate of obesity among adult males in Europe; 22% of seven to 12 year olds are overweight or obese, while research shows that 300,000 could become obese in the near future if current trends continue. Some 4,000 people die per annum from obesity related problems.

Professor Alan Reilly stated at the Joint Committee on Health and Children on 9 March, in speaking about the ways in which the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had worked with interested parties to reduce the level of salt intake in the Irish diet:

Working closely with the food industry and others, we have seen an overall reduction in the salt content of staple foods. The content in bread, for example, has been reduced by approximately 10% over the past five years and there have been similar reductions in other products.

Why not apply the same initiative to ensure better food labelling? There is a recognition that we can put in place a traffic light system in that regard, using green for good foods and red for those foods which have a high calorie content. Such a system could be implemented quickly. Linked with this is a need to provide information for citizens in order that they can make informed choices on what they are consuming. The report of the national task force on obesity states that being overweight not only signals increased risk of medical problems but also exposes people to serious psycho-social problems.

The world norm is an increase in calorie content. The World Health Organization tells us that there is a higher prevalence among boys than girls in almost every European country, except among those aged 15 years in this country where there is a slightly higher prevalence among girls. Obesity presents a challenge in the 21st century that we face and tackle. Its prevalence has tripled in many European countries since the 1980s and the number of those affected continues to rise at an alarming rate, especially among young children. It accounts for nearly 10% of health costs and, in parts of the world, between 10% and 13% of deaths. We must inform citizens that obesity leads to premature death, excessive morbidity and serious psycho-social problems that endanger their welfare and lives.

There is a need for the Government to act and intervene. I accept there is a national task force on obesity. We need to examine the issue through the prism of education, gender, families and peer group influence along with the benefits of physical exercise.

The Ottawa charter for health promotion, published in the mid-1980s, sets out the tenets of public health policy to be the creation of supportive environments, personal skills development, re-orientating health care services towards prevention of illness, and community participation as fundamental to health promotion. Its precepts have been adopted in many health documents in this country.

A plan to combat obesity built on good physical exercise and which promotes food labelling must be targeted at schools and young people. If one takes "Operation Transformation" as a barometer of the nation's need for exercise and to monitor food intake, the tackling of obesity must come to the fore at the Department of Health and Children. I hope the Government's response will be positive, proactive and allow people to change their eating habits while increasing their exercise. I hope any campaign will not be delayed and the call to action will be sooner rather than later.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The report of the national task force on obesity, Obesity - the Policy Challenges, provided the policy framework for addressing the high prevalence and rising levels of excessive weight and obesity, in particular childhood obesity. It attributed the development of excessive weight and obesity to many factors. This wide range of factors made it essential for a multisectorial approach to be taken to deal with the relevant issues. The report provided 93 recommendations for action to include central government, the education sector, the social and community sector, the health sector, food production and supply and the physical environment.

An intersectorial group on obesity, comprising relevant Departments and key stakeholders, was established early in 2009 to oversee and monitor implementation of the task force's recommendations. It published a report in April 2009, detailing progress on each of the recommendations, and showed significant progress was made in the case of 30 of the recommendations, partial implementation had occurred on 29, and action was progressing on a further 26, leaving only eight where little progress was reported.

The report indicated that while significant progress had been made across all sectors, there was a continuing need for concerted action to halt the rise in obesity. The group also gave some consideration to key priority areas for action in the short to medium term. Among those highlighted were measures to increase physical activity among children; awareness programmes about the dangers of excessive consumption of foods high in fat, sugar and salt; increased control of the advertising and marketing of food and drinks aimed at children; improved training for health professionals in obesity prevention; and diagnosis and counselling for those at risk of obesity.

Since the April 2009 report, a significant development has been the publication in 2009 of the first national guidelines on physical activity and the accompanying website "Get Ireland Active". Based on best international practice, the guidelines specify the recommended levels of daily physical activity for people of all ages and abilities.

The work of the intersectorial group on obesity is being examined in the wider review of policy on lifestyle related illnesses, of which obesity is a major contributory factor. Elements of this work will also be progressed in the forthcoming policy on cardiovascular disease which will be completed presently.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. While we await these further deliberations, we must be more proactive in tackling obesity. Will the Minister of State ask the task force to meet with Gerry Ryan and the participants in "Operation Transformation"? Will consideration be given to making Gerry Ryan the obesity czar as his programme led a great campaign in January and February?

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I will certainly consider the Senator's proposals.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The third Adjournment matter is in the name of Senator McFadden but she is not present even though we have contacted her office. The House will adjourn.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 March 2010.