Speech by Minister Harris at the launch of the Obesity Policy and Action Plan

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I am delighted that so many of you could come along today to share in the launch of A Healthy Weight for Ireland 2016 – 2025 our new national Obesity Policy and Action Plan.  I know many of you will have given generously of your time, experience and wisdom in the wide ranging consultation process which has fed into the development of this Policy.

My colleague Minister Zappone will later launch “Healthy Lifestyles” A Consultation with Children and Young People.  The views expressed in that consultation, particularly in relation to the importance of the family, the environment, schooling, health services and other determinants of health greatly assisted in the overall approach adopted in crafting this policy, and my colleague at the Department of Health, Minister Corcoran Kennedy will outline the key aspects of the Policy itself.

This Obesity Policy adds to the comprehensive suite of policy and legislation we have developed under Healthy Ireland with the aim of improving the health and wellbeing of our people.

Healthy Ireland aims to make it easier for more people to stay healthy, stay out of hospital, and make positive changes that will enhance their lives.

Healthy Ireland specifically highlights the economic and societal benefits of preventing illness, and intervening early. It acknowledges the interdependencies between what we are trying to achieve in health and in other policy areas such as education, employment, transport, environment and social protection with whom we share a vision for the enhanced health and wellbeing of the Irish people.

It is important that we integrate our approach across Government to tackle these social determinants of health and wellbeing, and in particular those which contribute to health inequalities in our population.

It is in our national interest that all people living in Ireland are supported and empowered to have the best possible health, to allow them meet their potential in life and contribute fully to their community, society and economy.

As a Government, we have a responsibility to influence the environment and conditions which help people to have their desired quality of life and enjoy physical and mental health and wellbeing to their full potential.

Under the Healthy Ireland framework, we have made some real progress on smoking.  We now need a similar focus on alcohol misuse, obesity and physical inactivity.  “A Healthy Weight for Ireland” is our answer to the call to reduce the burden of obesity across society.

Obesity is largely preventable but the solutions are not simple and the challenge is great.  We know that 60% of adults and one in four children in Ireland are either overweight or obese.

Working together and across sectors on a wide range of areas that impact on the lifestyle factors affecting obesity is what we must do.

It is not only the job of the health services or me or my fellow Ministers in the Department of Health to solve the problem.

While lifestyle choices are made by individuals and families, Government can and must help to empower people make these healthy choices. Tackling obesity requires action at many and different levels and requires the involvement of the whole of Government, all of society, with all sectors and communities and individuals to create healthy generations of children who can enjoy their lives to the full and reach their full potential.

This will require strong central leadership and sustained support to prevent obesity and reduce the inequalities that are evident. Each and every one of us must become involved in tackling this issue, because the factors involved are many and varied and include the environment, access to healthy and affordable food, physical activity, leisure activity, cultural and societal norms, education and skill levels, genetic makeup and lifestyle choices.  We must act decisively, now, on multiple levels to achieve change, and all links in the chain must be addressed.

We need, therefore, a national intervention strategy, combining government and community-led interventions.  We need to educate the population on good nutrition choices.  We need strategies to modify our environment to reduce the growing levels of obesity.   My vision as Minister for Health is to turn the tide on the overweight and obesity epidemic by increasing the number of people with a healthy weight and by setting us on a path where healthy weight becomes the norm.

Healthy Ireland Fund

In order to support more effective cross-sectoral action, we are proposing innovative approaches to how we ensure greater collaborative working at both national and local level.

One such proposal is the establishment of a “Healthy Ireland Fund” which will allow for “joined-up working” between Government Departments on projects, programmes and initiatives that support the implementation of Healthy Ireland.  This Fund will support collaborative work across sectors to embed and implement Healthy Ireland programmes and projects in a variety of settings, including education, local authorities, workplaces and communities. My Department is engaging with other Departments through the Healthy Ireland Cross Sectoral Group to agree the mechanisms for establishing, administering and monitoring the Fund.  My Department is also engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the Fund as part of the estimates process for 2017. This is a new way of working together, across sectors with the shared aim to support communities, promote healthy lifestyles and to eliminate inequalities.

I intend to prioritise projects and programmes aimed at children and young people and their families.  I will also prioritise support for communities and vulnerable groups who experience disadvantage and are most at risk of experiencing health inequalities.

Sugar Sweetened Drinks Levy

I am also proposing the introduction of a sugar sweetened drinks levy.

We know that consumption of sugar sweetened drinks is high, especially in certain groups and from a health perspective, the purpose is to influence consumption, and to encourage reductions in the levels of sugar in these products.

Targets and Priority Actions

Because we need urgent, unified and concerted public health action to reduce the level of obesity among our children and adults, the Obesity Policy and Action Plan sets targets to be achieved and actions that will produce measureable outcomes within its lifetime.  Minister Corcoran Kennedy will set these out in more detail, but it’s important to say that   all of these priority actions will commence at the earliest opportunity – many in 2016.

As the biggest provider of health services in Ireland the HSE has a major role to play in tackling the obesity problem.  I have agreed with them that we will prioritise the appointment of a Clinical Lead on Obesity who will provide a model of care for children and adults and oversee its implementation.  The HSE will develop a range of initiatives on obesity prevention in the community as well as specialist services including bariatric surgery in our hospitals.

Nobody underestimates the magnitude of the task in hand and I know that the targets are ambitious. However this Policy is built as a whole of Government and a whole of society approach. It is the culmination of a shared vision, common agenda and a desire to achieve change.

Each of us here today, in our own unique way is a custodian of the health and wellbeing of the Irish population and we have a responsibility to reverse the spiralling upward trends in obesity.

With vigour, energy and commitment to our shared goals, we will succeed in creating a healthier Ireland.