Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (66, 67)

Trevor Sargent

Question:

180 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Health and Children his plans to deal with the problem of childhood obesity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2034/04]

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Joe Sherlock

Question:

203 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Health and Children the steps he intends to take to deal with the threat to health posed by rising level of obesity identified in the recent annual report of the National Nutritional Surveillance Centre; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1908/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Health and Children)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 180 and 203 together.

The Slán survey published in 2003 highlights that 47% of the Irish population were overweight or obese in 2002, compared with 42% in 1998. In the same period, the reported rates of those overweight have increased from 32% to 34% and obese from 10% to 13%. In addition to this, numbers reporting no physical activity have increased among both men — from 21% to 30% — and women — from 20% to 25%.

The issue of childhood obesity is a challenge that is being addressed. Significant cultural changes have impacted in that opportunities to participate in physical activity have decreased while the prevalence of foods high in fat and sugar have increased in children's diets. Data from a recent study compiled from the health behaviour in school children survey indicate that 20% to 21% of boys and girls are overweight in Ireland.

The results of these surveys reflect a similar situation at global level. Developed countries are documenting increasing levels of overweight and obesity. A position paper prepared by the international obesity task force recommends that national obesity task forces be established to develop and implement strategies to counteract the epidemic of obesity.

In response to these trends and in line with the EU Health Council conclusions that member states need to address the issue of obesity using established national structures, I am in the process of establishing an obesity task force.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in health promotion activities associated with obesity prevention. These will have a long-term impact in addressing this issue. National campaigns support the implementation of these strategies, the aims of which are to raise awareness of healthy diets and being active for health and for weight management. The campaign "Let it Go — just for 30 minutes" focused on the message that even minor increases in the level of activity can lead to positive health benefits. The national healthy eating campaign has concentrated on encouraging people to eat four or more portions of fruit or vegetables per day. As part of these campaigns health boards provide regional and local focus in schools, communities and other settings.

As a direct result of funding from the cardiovascular health strategy there are now 36 additional community dieticians in post. These dieticians have formed partnerships with community groups to provide nutrition education, cookery programmes and healthy eating projects. The majority of boards have been resourced to run specific targeted, focused, sustained programmes aimed in particular at those on low income. Physical activity co-ordinators have also been appointed in each board, promoting physical activity amongst the population as recommended in the national strategies.