Speeches

Comments by Mr Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children at the launch of Irish Heart Week and World Heart Day

As many of you are aware, cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer of Irish people. We are seeing increases in heart failure, obesity and diabetes not just in Ireland but throughout Europe and the developed world. Through “Building Healthier Hearts” the Cardiovascular Health Strategy, launched by the Taoiseach in 1999, we are taking a strategic approach to the development of cardiology services and have put in place structures to facilitate the improvement of heart health in our population.

Progress on Cardiovascular Strategy

Since its launch in 1999 we have spent more than €57 million on implementing the strategy.  We have funded 19 additional consultant cardiologists, bringing to a total of 48 the number of consultant cardiologists in Ireland. There has been a 200% increase in certain cardiology procedures and the 24% reduction in the waiting list for cardiology procedures. As recently as 1990 phase three cardiac rehabilitation programmes were available in just one of the 40 public hospitals that treat patients with heart disease.  Today all 40 hospitals are operating cardiac rehabilitation programmes.  In addition, there has also been considerable expansion in services in primary care to reduce the risk of further events in those with symptomatic coronary artery disease.

Prevention

However, we know that a healthy diet, being active throughout life and not smoking will greatly help to reduce people’s current and future risk of developing heart disease.  By making small lifestyle changes people can reduce their chances of developing cardiovascular disease.  The aim of Irish Heart Week is to increase awareness of the determinants of heart health among the general population and to facilitate and encourage people to make healthier choices.

Salt and Healthy Eating

Food is an important determinant of heart health and to maintain good health we should eat healthy food in healthy quantities. As Dr Fennell has mentioned, Irish people are consuming too much salt and this can have harmful effects such as higher blood pressure.  Irish Heart Week activities will include an important public information campaign on salt consumption.  This campaign is supported by the Government and ties in with our current healthy eating message to reduce portion sizes.  Many of the foods linked with overweight and obesity are often not only high in fat and sugar, but are also high in salt.  Therefore if we reduce our consumption of such foods, through smaller portion sizes, we will automatically reduce our consumption of salt.

Recognising the increasing evidence of adverse effects of a high salt intake, the Cardiovascular Health Strategy included a  recommendation that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland should ‘examine   dietary salt intake and advise on a national policy on salt.  I understand that the subcommittee has almost finished their report . I look forward to receiving it and acting on their advice, in a further effort to  reduce salt consumption nationally and therefore deaths from cardiovascular  disease and stroke.

A general information booklet  “Time to cut down on salt” is available free from the Irish Heart Foundation .  The booklet is produced with support of the Health Promotion Unit of my Department and Safefood, the Food Safety Promotion Board and includes tips for reducing salt in the everyday diet, information on food labels – as well as tips when eating out.

Health boards and hospitals will support the week by disseminating information to local community groups. Dietitians will be supporting the campaign by highlighting the need for less salt and helping people make reduced salt healthy food choices.

In addition, as part of the ongoing Happy Heart at Work Programme of the Irish Heart Foundation, supported by the Government, over 500 workplaces will offer employees the Time to cut down on salt leaflet. Workplaces will also offer reduced salt healthy food choices, using the Healthy Catering Guidelines on salt reduction also distributed to caterers, as part of Irish Heart Week.

I’m glad to report that Superquinn stores in Dublin, Carlow and Waterford will also promote low salt food choices. In association with the  Irish Heart Foundation , Superquinn  have developed a leaflet for their customers, will be promoting lower salt food choices in their supermarkets and will be providing information stands at several locations through the week. I know that Superquinn have been supportive of many healthy eating initiatives and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate them for taking the lead in this area.

In the fight against heart disease, it is critically important to have the support of Food Manufacturers and Food Retailers to ensure that we all have access to healthy food choices.  I am delighted to see that a forum with the Food Industry is planned during Irish Heart Week to encourage our industry partners to gradually cut down on salt in the manufacture and processing of foods.

Physical Activity

Inactivity damages health and is a serious risk to heart health.  Despite these dangers and the evidence that most people are aware that being active is good for health and well being, over half the population remains largely inactive for health gain.

We need to think seriously about the consequences of inactivity.  Heart disease, weak bones, overweight, obesity, diabetes and poor muscle development are just some of the conditions that can arise from leading a sedentary lifestyle.  These issues cannot be taken lightly and it is important to address the growing problem in Ireland by being proactive, encouraging everyone to be more physically active.

Obesity

Worryingly, the onset of obesity in children across the world is happening at a younger age and a child is twice as likely to be an obese adult, if obese in childhood. Obesity is a complex condition that affects and threatens 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, we need is to identify a solution to halt the rise and reverse the prevalence of obesity in society.

For this reason, I have established a National Taskforce on Obesity, chaired by the Chief Executive of the Irish Sports Council, Mr. John Treacy.  I have asked the Taskforce to set out a strategic framework, that:

  • encompasses the determinants of overweight and obesity,
  • identifies best practice for prevention, detection and treatment, and
  • creates the social and physical environments that makes it easier for children and adults to eat more healthily and be more active on a regular basis.

I have asked the Taskforce to report to me by the end of the year.

Irish Heart Week will begin on World Heart Day, this Sunday, the 26th September with a broader theme of walking for heart health. With 250 walks throughout the country being organised by community and voluntary leaders, this day caters for all the family. The World Heart Day activity supports the Department of Health and Children’s ‘Every Step Counts’ campaign, which promotes both physical activity and healthy eating.

Smoking

Smoking is the major lifestyIe behaviour that causes death and illness. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Irish Heart Foundation and everyone who has been so supportive of the smoke-free at work measure, introduced earlier this year, and already reporting exceptional levels of acceptance and compliance.  Along with the new legislation, the National Smokers’ Quitline and anti-smoking campaigns in the media such as the current “Nico” campaign we are creating an environment which will be more supportive of the 7 out of 10 smokers who wish to give up as well as one which will discourage young people from taking up smoking.

The Office of Tobacco Control has published a report that shows that 97% of premises inspected under the smoke-free workplace legislation have been found to be compliant with the law. I am truly grateful to everyone, smokers and non smokers alike, for getting behind this measure and ensuring that Ireland can be proud to become the first smoke-free in the workplace country in the world.

Conclusion

Finally, I would like to thank Dr Fennell, Michael O’Shea, Maureen Mulvihill and everyone involved in the Irish Heart Foundation for their ongoing support and valuable work throughout the year. I know my Department will continue to enjoy a supportive partnership with the Irish Heart Foundation in the promotion of cardiovascular health in Ireland.