I thank Deputy Buttimer for raising this important and topical issue. The prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased at alarming speed in recent decades, to the extent that the World Health Organisation terms it a "global epidemic". I saw an alarming slide produced at a talk I attended on the spread of obesity. It traced the spread throughout the USA starting in the 1960s. State after state became coloured in red. The disease has become widespread throughout the USA, Europe and Ireland.
Obesity affects all age groups of the Irish population. Of particular concern is the rising level of obesity among young children. Recent figures from research commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs found that an alarming figure of one in four children are overweight or obese at 3 years of age. Everyone knows that obese children have a high chance of becoming obese adults.
Last year I established a special action group on obesity chaired by my Department. The group includes representatives from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and Safefood. Its remit is to examine and progress several measures to address the complex and multi-factorial problem of obesity. Alone no single initiative will reverse the trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference. The special action group is concentrating on a specific range of measures including healthy eating guidelines for the Irish population; restricting the marketing of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt to children; nutritional labelling; calorie posting on restaurant menus; the promotion of physical activity; and the detection and treatment of obesity. The group will work with other Departments in a cross-sectoral approach to help halt the rise in overweight and obesity. I take this opportunity to welcome the work of Senator Eamonn Coghlan on physical fitness and its value.
As part of the group's plan, earlier this month I launched a national consultation to seek opinions on the best way of putting calorie information on menus. This is an initiative I announced late last year when I wrote to fast food outlets and cafes requesting that they begin including calorie information on their menus. The consultation being conducted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is an opportunity for consumers and the food industry to give their views on how information on calories on menus can be best implemented in Ireland. The consultation will close at the end of February and the results, when analysed, will inform the next steps in the process.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
All the initiatives being considered by the special action group on obesity will form part of the development of a wide ranging public health policy framework which is being developed by my Department.
The aim of this initiative - Your Health is Your Wealth: A Policy Framework for a Healthier Ireland 2012-2020 - is to develop a high-level policy framework for health and well-being to cover the period 2012-20. It will address the broad determinants of health and health inequalities through our health services, community and education settings. It is anticipated that the review will identify a number of key lifestyle policy issues such as smoking, alcohol and obesity where further action is required. It will identify practical ways to strengthen working between sectors to promote and protect the health and well-being of all sectors in our society. The aim of this process is to engage leaders and policy makers across Government and society to recognise that improving the public's health is the responsibility of all sectors of society and not just the responsibility of the public health workforce.