Obesity has been described as a global epidemic, one the developed world is struggling to contain without much success. Three decades ago, fewer than one in 10 people were obese. Since then the number has soared. In Ireland, one in four adults is obese, a similar rate to the UK but far higher than the European average. Obesity has a high financial cost for the taxpayer and – for some who are obese – a potentially lethal consequence.
A report by Safefood, a State-funded health promotion group, put the annual direct cost of treating obesity at some €400 million. And a further €700 million is the estimated indirect cost from obesity- related illnesses, absenteeism and premature deaths.
Ireland has had some success in reducing road deaths by an effective road safety campaign. Likewise, we have lowered the health risk from smoking-related illnesses by raising taxes on tobacco and banning smoking at work and many public places. By comparison, obesity has not received the public attention it merits, not least given that treating its side effects accounts for almost 3 per cent of annual health spending. Obesity remains a health problem within our control. However, it risks running out of control. One -quarter of Irish children are obese or overweight, with significant increases likely in the decades ahead. The Government and the public should acknowledge the challenge and will the means to deal with it.
Clearly, the economics of obesity prevention make sense. The cost of treating its related illnesses – diabetes in particular – is set to rise rapidly. The cost of containing and reducing the incidence of obesity, by adopting similar measures to those used in the anti-smoking campaign would be far less than the present policy of benign neglect. Other countries have legislated to tax foods rich in fat and sugar. Tomorrow’s budget gives the Government an opportunity to show how seriously it is taking the challenge the obesity epidemic presents.