Obesity: A public health crisis

Sugar tax is a key part of a multipronged approach to rising weight levels

 

A new report showing the Republic ranks 58th out of 200 countries for its proportion of overweight young people is another reminder of the ongoing public health challenge posed by rising weight levels. The report in the Lancet medical journal found a tenfold increase in the rate of obesity among Irish boys between 1975 and 2016, and a ninefold increase among Irish girls. It is sobering to note that, in 1975, just one per cent of children in the State were classified as obese.

The Lancet study, led by Imperial College London and the World Health Organisation, brought together data from 2,416 studies involving 128.9 million participants worldwide to estimate trends in body mass index.

It found almost one-third of Irish children are now overweight, while a fifth of children and teenagers in the US and one-tenth of those in the UK are obese. The health implications for these young people are serious: excessive weight gain in children is linked to a higher risk and earlier onset of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and liver disease as well as worse psychosocial and educational outcomes.

Fast food: most rich countries have been reluctant to use taxes and regulations to change our eating and drinking habits. Photograph: iStock/Getty
Fast food: most rich countries have been reluctant to use taxes and regulations to change our eating and drinking habits. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Prof Majid Ezzati, one of the study’s authors, noted that most high income countries “have been reluctant to use taxes and industry regulations to change eating and drinking behaviours to tackle child obesity”.

Coincidentally, and after some foot-dragging, Ireland announced plans for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in the budget on Tuesday. It means drinks with a sugar content of 8g per 100ml will be taxed at a rate of 30 cent per litre under the new measures.

While the food and drink industry disputes the likely health benefits of such taxation, it is an important element in a multipronged approach to the obesity crisis. A national obesity treatment programme must now be put in place, along with renewed and innovative education campaigns and prevention strategies. Obesity threatens a future tsunami of demand across the health service; it must be tackled vigorously by Government.

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