That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs entitled 'Tackling Childhood Obesity', copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 14th November, 2018.
As the Chair of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, I am pleased to discuss the committee's report on childhood obesity. I wish to express my sincere appreciation to the organisations and individuals who appeared before the committee and made submissions to it on this matter so that we might discuss their work, research, views and suggestions. Their input was vital in informing the committee's work and ensuring we all had a thorough understanding of the challenges that childhood obesity was causing across our country. I also wish to thank my fellow committee members for their work on this report and, indeed, the committee secretariat for its work throughout the hearings and on this report.
The House will agree that childhood obesity is an issue that we must address with the utmost priority. We must work to ensure that our children - the future generation - have the strongest possible future. As part of that, we must act to ensure that we take action in the best interests of the health of every young person in our country.
Childhood obesity represents one of the foremost challenges we face in modern society. This is highlighted by data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which are outlined within the report. The study found that one in four three year olds was overweight or obese while one in five five year olds and one in five seven and eight year olds were overweight or obese. By the age of 13, the figure rises to one in four children.
What was incredibly striking was the fact that 54% of parents of children who were overweight and 20% of parents of children who were obese reported that their children were about the right weight for their height. This signals a significant issue whereby parents and guardians may be unaware of what being overweight or obese actually is. It highlights the importance of ensuring adequate information is disseminated in order to support parents and guardians in recognising when this is the case and what actions they can take to prevent their children from becoming overweight or obese in the first instance.
Having listened to many organisations that appeared before the committee to discuss the initiatives they were promoting to assist our younger citizens in becoming and remaining healthy, and having heard of the additional supports required to tackle childhood obesity levels, I believe that we must strive to cause societal change on this issue. By doing so, we will encourage people to break bad habits and increasingly normalise healthy lifestyles for our younger generations.
First and foremost, the committee has recommended that the Government should ensure that a whole-of-system approach is adopted in all policies that work to tackle childhood obesity. It is fundamental that joined-up thinking be utilised so as to allow us to devise the most effective and efficient strategies to support young people and their families in living healthier lives and addressing the challenges posed by being obese or overweight.
It is of the utmost importance that action be taken to address socio-economic inequalities. For a variety of reasons, the reality is that people who have some degree of socio-economic disadvantage also face a disadvantage when it comes to tackling obesity levels.
As such, the Government should establish clear targets for reducing socio-economic inequalities, especially as they relate to childhood obesity, and put in place an evaluation framework to monitor progress. In addition, the Government should provide the necessary funding to support the identification of obesity hotspots which may allow for particular targeted measures to support those most vulnerable to the challenges and risk posed by childhood obesity. The committee has also made a recommendation that the Government should examine the possibility of expanding existing targeted interventions, and introducing new targeted interventions to address issues such as food poverty which adversely impact on those in lower socio-economic households. We have done this in a number of other areas and I do not see why we could not implement it in this field.
One particular area on which the committee sought to make recommendations was that of the youth work sector. Those who work in the youth work sector do great work to support some of our more vulnerable citizens. We must act to improve the supports available to the youth work sector to empower it in terms of the work it undertakes regarding obesity in children and young adults.
In this regard, the committee has recommended that the Government act to empower the youth work sector in strengthening its work "in enhancing the knowledge and skills of young people in relation to healthy eating and active living". In addition to this, as outlined in recommendation 7 of the committee's report, the Government should provide a programme of continuing professional development in physical activity for the youth work sector. This recommendation is in line with action 13 of the "Get Ireland Active" plan.
Physical activity is important, both in terms of general health and tackling childhood obesity, especially as a preventative measure. The committee believes that viewing the promotion of physical activity and sport as a key priority when it comes to the funding of projects using public money, for example, through the sports capital grants programme, would be very beneficial for young people.
By encouraging sporting bodies and organisations to interact with students in both primary and post-primary education, we will be able to increase the number of children and young people participating in sports and physical activity. Having had the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, in my constituency this morning visiting two projects which have benefited from sports capital grants, I am aware that there is a points system in the sports capital grants programme that incentivises sporting organisations to have a formal written arrangement with local schools. We should enhance that scoring scheme to give particular additional points to any sporting organisation that is targeting younger children and, most especially, those in socio-economically deprived communities.
On physical activity facilities within our schools, the committee believes that the Government should undertake a survey of all schools to ensure they have the necessary facilities to allow their students to partake in physical activity, and indeed to encourage them to do so. Having heard anecdotal reports on insurance liability concerns in some schools whereby certain curtailments on physical activity have been enacted, we, as a committee, would urge the Government to survey schools to determine the extent to which such insurance liability concerns are impeding the ability of students to partake in physical activity at their break and lunchtimes, and to address the matter urgently should it be a real factor for schools.
Physical activity is an important factor in tackling childhood obesity, but as many people may say, "You cannot out-exercise a bad diet". Therefore, we must examine diet, nutrition and the implementation of no-fry zones. The committee has made recommendations relating to the introduction of no-fry zones nationally, particularly that the Government should consider both the implementation of such zones in the vicinity of schools and how best to enforce no-fry zone rules nationally. To do this, we must have one national definition of what constitutes a fast-food outlet, and while this may seem somewhat simple, it is a pivotal element in bringing in the no-fry zone concept. As I stated when launching the committee's report, we can see from a study undertaken in Finland in 2005 that "the proximity of a fast-food outlet to a school can potentially lead to a 25% increase in the risk of a child being overweight". We must recognise the important work which has been undertaken by groups, such as No Fry Zone 4 Kids Committee, in advancing the no-fry zone concept thus far, but now it is time for the House to introduce it on a national basis.
A number of further recommendations relating to healthy eating have been made by the committee within this report, especially the promotion and normalisation of the drinking of water over fizzy drinks. To achieve this, we must ensure there are adequate drinking water facilities in all of our schools. Vending machines are not an appropriate facility to be offered in any school. The committee heard reports that some schools may be dependent on the proceeds of vending machines. The Department of Education and Skills must act to ensure that this is never the case. Vending machines can be offered to schools and provide for healthy snacks. There are such things, they are popular, they sell and there is no particular reason they cannot be put in a school in the first place. That is something the committee recommended.
With regard to home economics, we have recommended that the Government consider introducing the subject as a compulsory subject for the junior certificate on a phased basis to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to be able to make nutritious, healthy meals and develop and maintain a healthy diet.
In adequately addressing and preventing childhood obesity, it is vital that we address the marketing and advertising of junk foods and unhealthy foods to children and young people. That is also something that will require definitions. While I am aware that certain restrictions on advertising are in place, these restrictions do not go far enough and are not comprehensive enough. Therefore, the committee believes that a number of improvements of new measures are urgently required in this regard. A more robust nutrient model is required in the context of the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to younger citizens. The World Health Organization, WHO, nutrient profile model for the European region may be a suitable model to utilise in this regard. The Government must also amend regulations for broadcast media and introduce a statutory code along the same lines for non-broadcast media, in conjunction with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, to ensure regulations which prevent the marketing of junk and unhealthy foods to children apply not only to broadcast and non-broadcast media aimed at children but also to all media of which a significant number of children may be availing.
Early intervention has also been identified by the committee as an important issue. In this regard, we believe the Government must act to increase breastfeeding supports substantially and increase necessary funding levels for these supports. The reason for this is that much evidence has indicated that children who are breastfed are significantly less likely to become overweight or obese.
I mention also the recommendations of the committee in the report on mental health. When discussing this topic with representatives from the W82GO weight management service at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, the committee heard that, of the young people they had seen, 40% have significant and severe mental health problems, 75% have experienced bullying, with 11% experiencing severe bullying, and unfortunately a number of the children seen have a history of self-harm or suicidal intent. We always hear that physical health and mental health are intertwined and that one cannot have an impact on one without addressing the other. As such, we must ensure that supports are in place for children who may face weight difficulties as a result of mental ill health and for children who face mental health difficulties as a result of weight difficulties. In saying this, in this report we acknowledge that further work could be undertaken in terms of examining any links between childhood obesity, mental health, and body image.
As Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, I commend this report to the House, urge the Government to implement its recommendations in full, and reiterate my thanks to all who contributed to this worthy report over the course of a number of months in 2018 and to the committee members for their contribution to its completion.