Ireland risks becoming the fattest nation in the world unless it deals with the obesity crisis in the same way it tackled smoking, Minister for Health Simon Harris has warned.
Obesity is a “ticking time bomb” that has to some extent already “detonated”, Mr Harris said at the launch of the Government’s policy and plan on the issue.
National eating guidelines, calorie posting legislation and the prioritisation of obesity services within the HSE form part of the plan, which will be implemented over the next decade.
A clinical lead to guide obesity policy within the health service will be appointed and a “whole of school” approach to healthy lifestyles is promised in collaboration with the Department of Education.
The plan supports the introduction of a sugar levy to cut consumption of sweetened drinks. It is expected the Department of Finance, which has rejected such a measure in the past two years, will in next month’s budget give the go-ahead for a levy from 2018.
The plan on obesity proposes the development of a policy on nutrition, and work with the food industry on a voluntary code of practice for food advertising, promotion and marketing. Agreement will be sought with the industry on reformulating food to make it more healthy.
The introduction of maximum portion sizes for “relevant” foods and drink will be considered, on a voluntary basis initially. Drinkable water will be provided in all centres of learning, and guidelines on reducing the “obesogenic environment” will be developed for use in urban development.
Some 60 per cent of Irish adults, and one in four children, are overweight or obese. The cost to society is estimated at more than €1 billion a year. One of the State’s foremost obesity experts, Prof Donal O’Shea, said the plan “could not be more different” from the 2006 report of the national obesity taskforce, on which he served. “That plan was dead in the water within the year and we weren’t even allowed hold a meeting to discuss it.”
The current plan contains specific targets and timelines and the appetite for tackling obesity is much greater, he said. While he was not happy the sugar tax was not being introduced quickly, he recognised the need for compromise.
Prof O’Shea said there were 300 people waiting for weight-reducing surgery in his clinic in Loughlinstown and 150 in a clinic in Galway.
Mr Harris said there was no question of the plan having been watered down to suit the food industry. The Government was not ruling out legislation in the area, but wanted to begin with a collaborative approach. Legislation requiring restaurants to post the calorie content of meals will be law by the end of next year, his officials confirmed.
Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy said the new document was a plan with specific timelines and "not designed to sit on the shelf".