Address by Minister Seán Power at the launch of the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. First of all let me say that I very much welcome this report and, on behalf of the Department of Health and Children, I would like to extend my thanks to the National Taskforce on Obesity for their diligence and hard work in preparing it.

Obesity is a complex condition that affects and threatens to overwhelm virtually all age and socio-economic groups. Its health consequences range from increased risk of premature death to serious chronic conditions that reduce the overall quality of life.

While we know that the key causes of obesity are linked to food and physical activity habits – what we need to identify is a solution to halt the rise and reverse the prevalence of obesity in society. This was the task we set for the Taskforce.

Scale of Problem

Obesity in Europe is five times more common now, than it was after the Second World War. Recent trends highlight that the number of obese people is doubling every 10 years and the problem is becoming increasingly prevalent in younger people.

Clearly obesity is a global problem that knows no boundaries. It is common throughout the island of Ireland and I am delighted that the Health Promotion Agency of Northern Ireland and the Institute of Public Health were represented on the Taskforce. Our shared experiences will add value to effectively addressing and preventing obesity levels for the entire population of Ireland in the future.

Life expectancy of people who are obese at the age of 40 years can be reduced by up to seven years, compared with people of a healthy weight.

The situation is worse for smokers. Obese smokers, on average, lose 13 years off their life, compared with people of a healthy weight and who do not smoke.

Obesity in Children

Obesity in children has been identified as an emerging public health problem, particularly in the Western World.

Data from recent surveys indicate that one in five Irish boys and girls are overweight and one in twenty are obese. Worryingly, the age of onset of obesity in children across the world is falling and a child is twice as likely to be an obese adult, if obese in childhood.

We need therefore, as a priority, to address the trend and scale of overweight and obesity in Irish children.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Obesity

Obesity is caused by lifestyle choices. Habits need to be changed if an obese person is to stand a good chance of losing weight. There are no quick fixes.

Effective weight management for individuals and groups at risk of developing obesity involves a range of long-term strategies. These include prevention, detection, weight maintenance, management of co-morbidities and weight loss. They need to be part of an integrated, multi-sectoral, population-based approach, which includes environmental support for healthy diets and regular physical activity. This is a major challenge for Ireland and must include creating supportive population-based environments through public policies that promote the availability and accessibility of a variety of low-fat, high-fibre foods, and that provide opportunities for physical activity.

As the Taoiseach has already said, in health terms this is a very important issue but the solution will require genuine cross-sectoral and inter-departmental effort. Since my appointment as Minister of State responsible for Health Promotion it has become increasingly clear to me that whether the issue is cardiovascular disease, alcohol, mental health, nutrition or physical activity, in order to make progress we need the involvement of other government departments. And this issue is no different. In fact it is now widely recognized the many of the factors that determine our health status, such as income, literacy, our environment as well as access to healthy affordable food and safe places to take exercise do not come within the influence of the health sector.

This approach is enshrined in the Health Promotion Strategy 2000-2005. While these factors clearly come within the areas of responsibility of a number of different Government Departments we in the health sector must adopt an advocacy and supportive role to ensure that we achieve the necessary synergy from our combined efforts. I am therefore committed to working with other Government Departments towards implementing the recommendations in this report.

I look forward to presenting this report to cabinet and am glad that the Taoiseach is lending his support to it.