Speech by Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy at the launch of the Obesity Policy and Action Plan

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As Minister of State for Health Promotion I feel very gratified to be speaking today at the launch of my Department’s Obesity Policy and Action Plan because enjoyment of good health is not evenly distributed in society and this policy will, without doubt, help save lives and reduce inequalities.

Minister Harris has already alluded to the seriousness of the situation we are facing in Ireland today with regard to overweight and obesity. We have also heard the voices of children and young people and Professor O’Shea’s insights to the problem, so we are left in no doubt about the gravity of the issues facing us.

In the last 20 – 30 years, levels of overweight and obesity in Ireland have doubled.  Today in this country only 40% of Irish people have a healthy weight which means that 2 out of every 3 adults are overweight or obese and one in four children.  This is a challenge, but one we can overcome, if every sector recognises its role in reducing the burden of this condition.  Overweight and obesity are conditions that develop over a number of years, but are largely preventable.

I don’t need to emphasise to you how important it is that we be cognisant of our lifestyles because they are very much tied to leading a healthy fulfilled life that is free from disability.  The links between obesity and heart disease, stroke, cancers, type 2 diabetes, mental ill-health and other conditions are well established.  The fact that the majority of our population is overweight or obese means that Ireland faces a dramatic increase in chronic disease which puts at risk all the improvements in life expectancy we have achieved over the last few decades.

Apart from the societal cost, obesity inflicts a significant personal burden on the individual.  People’s self-esteem is generally lower, the children’s consultation has highlighted for us that children may be bullied because of the stigma linked with overweight and obesity and their mental health can be affected.   The economic cost of obesity for adults in 2009 was estimated to have been €1.13 bn.  Just think what great work we could do with that amount at our disposal.  But of course this is unsustainable.  We must take action now to reverse these trends.

Although there are genetic, behavioural and hormonal influences on body weight, as consumers, we are now eating more processed, ready to eat and energy dense foods.  These processed foods are often cheap, last long on the shelf and are attractive.

Portion sizes are also getting bigger; we have become more reliant on processed foods and less so on the fresh produce of our parents time; a large number of us are not meeting the levels of physical activity recommended in the National Guidelines.

On top of all of the above, we are also consuming a quarter of our total calories outside the home.  In 2014, the Irish consumer, spent € 6.1 billion on out of home food and drink consumption in locations where we have no control over the calorie content of the meal.

Obesity Policy

The policy sets out effective and sustainable actions that will be taken by government, statutory and other sectors, communities and individuals.  These include legislative, fiscal and environmental measures.  The main messages are to act now and to do so together, in a planned and coordinated way.

The Obesity Policy Action Plan contains a “Ten Steps Forward” approach.  The 10 Steps in turn include 60 actions, which may sound like a lot, but a decision has been made by Government in wide ranging consultation to fight this problem and we as a community working together will make progress on each of these actions as they are interdependent and complement each other, and if we fail to move forward on all of them we risk undermining the action plan.  Underpinning the policy are targets to reduce the levels of overweight and obesity in adults and children and to reduce the gap between socioeconomic groups. These are ambitious but achievable if we implement the action plan as a whole.

These 10 Steps chart a course to reverse obesity trends, prevent complications and reduce the overall burden for individuals, families, the health system and the wider society and economy.  A number of the priority actions will commence in the first year.

Step 1 recognises that prevention is the primary focus of the Obesity Policy and Action Plan and preventing children from becoming overweight must form the cornerstone of prevention efforts.  To this end, my Department, together with other government departments and public sector agencies will support healthy lifestyle programmes across a variety of sectors including education, environment, transport, social protection and agriculture. Among the many measures we will examine include the expansion of parenting programmes that incorporate healthy lifestyle and behavioural change.

Step 2 involves regulating for a healthier environment.  As part of the cross-sectoral collaboration and development of effective measures to tackle the obesogenic environment, officials of my Department, Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, the HSE and Institute of Public Health will examine current guidelines for local area plans and build on these existing guidelines to support the promotion of healthier lifestyles including the option of ‘no fry zones’ near schools, playgrounds, hospitals and so on.  It is important that awareness of the linkages between health and the environment are widely understood and that the ‘health input’ into planning is consistent and evidence based.

Within Step 2 also is a measure to inform consumers about the calorie content of the food and drink they consume while eating out.  Posting “Calories on Menus” is a highly visible way to educate consumers and help them recognise the calorie content of foods and drinks eaten outside the home.  My Department is progressing this legislation.

Step 3 sets out a number of actions relating to the way foods and drinks with high sugar, fat and salt are promoted and marketed, in particular to children. I want to encourage the food industry to continue and strengthen its reformulation efforts. In addition, with partners, I intend to develop, implement and evaluate a Code of Practice for food and beverages promotion, marketing and sponsorship and establish a forum with industry to review and implement best practice initiatives towards a healthy food environment.

Step 4 sees my Department, the HSE and safefood developing consecutive five-year evidence-based communication strategies aimed at creating behaviour change, including the development of print, online and social media resources with a special emphasis on reducing inequalities.

Step 5 contains actions such as developing and implementing a Nutrition Policy and Action Plan and updating my Department’s “Healthy Eating Guidelines and Food Pyramid,” which I will soon be launching.  The main change will be a major focus on fruit and vegetables and the development of a range of practical easy to understand resources that translate the correct amount of the foods we need into healthy balanced meal plans, to make it easier for people to make healthier choices about their food and their meals.

Steps 6 and 7 relate to the HSE.  These actions aim to make it easier to access a range of appropriate, high quality services that work to promote the maintenance of a healthy weight and to support people who are currently overweight so as to achieve a healthier weight at all stages of life.  We have much ground to make up with respect to prevention services and specialist services within the community and these will be prioritised when embarking on the HSE Estimates process.  Minister Harris has already discussed the appointment of a Clinical Lead on Obesity which is one of the main action points under Step 7.

Step 8 acknowledges the key role of physical activity in the prevention of overweight and obesity. The implementation of the National Physical Activity Plan for Ireland is already underway, and includes some important measures to prevent obesity such as  the development of guidelines to reduce sedentary levels in the Irish population.

Step 9 will see resources allocated on a priority basis to address inequalities in the prevalence of overweight and obesity from pre-conception to two years, families, children, low-income groups and people living in deprived areas.  Investment will be preferentially allocated to those most in need of support such as children and disadvantages groups.

And finally Step 10 has eleven action points dealing with developing a research plan; developing core indicators; and developing an obesity knowledge translation programme.

It is my intention to closely monitor progress on the action plan, evaluating and reviewing progress on each of the targets and actions, because this plan is not designed to sit on a shelf; it is an action plan and as such requires us to be bold and to bravely move forward in order to turn back the tide on obesity.

There is no situation that cannot be transformed.   If we act together, collaborate as one, we will see the actions contained in this policy come to fruition and blossom. Everyone has a role, and a responsibility, in achieving the goals of this Policy.

In conclusion I want to thank all of you here today; I also want to thank my Department officials, the Institute of Public Health, the Obesity Policy Steering Group, the children and all those stakeholders who contributed so generously over the past year to the formation of this Obesity Policy and Action Plan.

A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016 – 2025