The levels of overweight and obesity have been increasing despite the fact they are preventable. Childhood obesity and emerging inequalities are now recognised as key issues which need to be addressed. In fact, childhood obesity is reaching alarming proportions in many countries, which has the potential to negate many of the health benefits which have contributed to increased life expectancy.
One in four schoolchildren and one in five teenagers are now overweight or obese which can affect their immediate health, educational attainment and quality of life. Obesity carries a stigma in childhood and may be linked with bullying. Children with obesity are likely to remain obese as adults and are at risk of chronic illness. The Health Service Executive’s childhood obesity surveillance more recent data indicate that rates of overweight and obesity have shown decreases at age seven and stabilisation at age nine. However, the overall incidence is still a cause for concern.
Overweight and obesity are significant risk factors for many chronic non-communicable diseases. The links between obesity and heart disease, stroke, cancers, type 2 diabetes, mental ill-health, respiratory problems and musculoskeletal conditions are well established. These chronic conditions account for approximately three quarters of primary care visits and hospital admissions. To tackle the growing problem of obesity in the population in general and children specifically, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and I launched A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025 late last year. It sets a short-term target for a sustained downward trend in levels of excess weight in children and a reduction in the gap in obesity levels between the highest and lowest socio-economic groups by 10%.
The obesity policy is the result of the Government’s desire to assist people to achieve better health and in particular to reduce the level of overweight and obesity, thus enhancing their quality of life. It has been informed by a comprehensive consultation with major stakeholders, health experts, health care providers, children and young people. The policy covers a ten-year period up to 2025. The vision is to turn the tide of the overweight and obesity epidemic. The overall aim is to increase the number of people with a healthy weight and set us on a path where healthy weight becomes the norm.
Obesity is a complex problem with nutritional, activity related, psychological, biological and social determinants. Consequently, any realistic solutions must be multifaceted and be implemented as part of a suite of measures. The obesity policy adds to the comprehensive suite of policy and legislation developed under the Healthy Ireland policy. The policy acknowledges the importance of an integrated approach across the Government to tackle the social determinants of health and well-being, and in particular those which contribute to health inequalities in the population.
No single sector or agency is able to solve this issue on its own. Individuals and families need to be supported to make informed choices in healthy eating, being physically active in order that they can achieve and maintain a healthy weight. The obesity policy and action plan strives to empower individuals, families and communities to enhance their own skills to improve their health. Many of the actions outlined in the obesity policy have already been commenced. For example, the Department of Health has published a working paper to inform consideration of a sugar-sweetened drinks levy from a health perspective. The policy objective is to reduce rates of childhood and adult obesity in Ireland by reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, particularly among young people. The Department of Finance has consulted on its introduction in 2018.
Preparation of legislation on calorie labelling to help educate the general public on the calorie content of food portions is ongoing. A voluntary calorie posting scheme in existence since 2011 has been evaluated and a public consultation also took place in 2012. The results of both the evaluation and consultation are feeding into the development of the legislation.
Work will commence in 2017 on a new proposal for a nutrition policy and action plan. A working group has been established to develop a code of practice on food advertising and promotion, including product placement and sponsorship. It is anticipated this work will be published in 2017. A food reformulation working group is being established to reduce the sugar, fat and salt content of foods and beverages, in line with the EU food reformulation project. In the HSE, the new clinical lead post for obesity is currently being advertised. The healthy eating-food pyramid guidelines have been updated by a multi-agency working group, lead by the Department of Health, and were launched in December 2016.
In addition to these measures, what we do in our homes, schools and communities to help build healthy habits for all children and families is vital to childhood obesity prevention efforts. These healthy habits are critical in helping those children who are a healthy weight now to stay a healthy weight, while those who are overweight or obese achieve a healthier weight as they grow and develop. The key healthy habits are to reduce portion sizes, eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and salad every day, manage treat foods, replace sugary drinks with water, make being active fun and part of every day; have less screen time and encourage more sleep.
Last year, I launched the healthy food for life campaign, which contains as an important message four of these key healthy habits. The campaign involved several stakeholders, particularly the HSE, which co-funded the campaign materials. In 2016, the health and well-being division of the HSE established the healthy eating active living policy priority programme. Its remit is to mobilise the health services to improve health and well-being by increasing the levels of physical activity, healthy diet and healthier weight across services users, staff and the population as a whole, with a focus on families and children. The programme co-ordinates and drives the implementation of a series of evidence-based actions across the health services and with external partners to strengthen capacity to promote healthy weight and prevent childhood obesity.
Three out of five adults and one in four children are overweight or obese. The unfortunate truth is that, as the World Health Organization has predicted, Ireland is on course to become the most obese nation in Europe by 2030 unless we take action now. Tackling childhood obesity is a key priority for me as Minister of State.