Speech material for All-Island Obesity Action Forum Minister Shortall

I would like to thank Safefood for inviting me here today and for giving me the opportunity to participate in the debate on obesity. There is no need to go into prevalence statistics on overweight and obesity and the wide range of serious health and social problems they cause as you will all be familiar with them. My task in the Department of Children is to effect public policy so that we can tackle the problem.

Detailed research allows us make informed decisions on where to concentrate scarce resources and evidence based interventions. There is ample research showing the adverse effects negative lifestyles have on rates of chronic disease and the burden these place on the quality of life of those affected. The economic burden is also considerable, not only for the health system, but also for families and society as a result of reduced income, early retirement, an increased reliance on social care and welfare support and diminished productivity and absenteeism. The World Health Organisation in Europe has estimated that a 10-15% increase in chronic diseases would reduce a country’s GDP by an order of 1% over the next decade.

Research tells us that approximately 75% of healthcare expenditure is allocated to the management of chronic diseases, including diseases in which diet plays a role. All major chronic diseases except for chronic respiratory diseases are strongly influenced by diet. Obesity, in particular, is associated with high health care costs and economic productive losses. Patients with chronic conditions are heavy users of the health service. It is estimated that three quarters of healthcare expenditure relates to chronic diseases. In practical terms, this translates to 80% of GP consultations and 60% of hospital bed days. Chronic disease accounts for two thirds of emergency medical admissions to hospitals.

Chronic Disease Policy

Like many problems, a two pronged approach is being taken to tackle the problem. First of all the immediate problem has to be addressed. It was for this reason that the Department developed the Chronic Disease Framework Policy in 2008. The Policy was designed to reduce these challenges and emphasised the need to develop shared and integrated care, thus avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions, and delivering improved quality of life for those affected. The key role of primary healthcare was highlighted. The HSE clinical programmes on stroke, diabetes, cardiac disease and arthritis, all diseases, I don’t have to remind you, are associated with obesity, follow the chronic disease framework.

At the same time a more long-term approach has to be taken. There have been many initiatives and programmes introduced to help people make the healthy lifestyle choices which go hand-in-hand with good health. Recently algorithms for the treatment of overweight and obesity were developed. These tools will make it easier for health care professionals to monitor and treat overweight and obesity at primary care level. The adult algorithm is now available while the one for children is at the final stages of agreement and will be available shortly.


One cannot talk about overweight and obesity and the importance of a healthy balanced life without including the role that nutrition and physical activity plays in the equation. Research tells us that the consumption of energy rich, nutritionally poor food from the top of the food pyramid is high among the Irish population. It is clear that people need to be made more aware of the importance of nutrition. Revised Healthy Eating Guidelines, including the Food Pyramid will be made available before the end of the year. They will help inform people about the food and drink choices required for health and set out in plain and simple language the food servings the Irish population need to consume to maintain health and wellbeing.

Physical Activity

There is ample evidence showing that in Ireland, we, like other developed countries, have become increasingly sedentary in our daily lives. We know from research that 3 out of every 4 Irish adults and 4 out of 5 Irish children do not meet the physical activity levels required for health and consequently are at risk of developing serious health problems due to inactivity. It was for this reason that the Department and the HSE developed National Physical Activity Guidelines in 2009. These emphasise the importance of physical activity to overall health and well-being and set out the minimum levels recommended for different sectors of the population. A dedicated website – www.getirelandactive.ie was also developed to become a one-stop shop for physical activity information. As the aim of the website is to encourage people to become more physically active by creating awareness of the opportunities for physical activity at local, regional and national levels, the main feature is a well-designed search facility that enables users to search for activities happening in each county. Refined search facilities allow for more detailed information to be sought on the type of activity required, dates, age grouping and ability levels.

Special Action Group on Obesity

Earlier this year, the Department of Health established a Special Action Group on Obesity, comprising key stakeholders, including Safefood, to examine and progress a number of issues to address the problem of obesity. Alone no single initiative will reverse the trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference. For this reason the Group is concentrating on a range of measures including actions such as calorie posting in restaurants, nutritional labelling, restrictions on the marketing of food and drink to children, the improved detection and treatment of obesity, revised healthy eating guidelines and the promotion of physical activity. It is also considering the introduction of a sugar levy on sugar-sweetened drinks. The Group will liaise with other Departments and organisations as required.

Your Health is Your Wealth: A Policy Framework for a Healthier Ireland 2012 – 2020

Another important initiative underway is – “Your Health is Your Wealth: A Policy Framework for a Healthier Ireland 2012 – 2020.” The aim of the Public Health Policy Framework is to develop a high-level policy framework for public health, to cover the period from 2012 to 2020. Following extensive consultation, drafting has now commenced. It will address the broad determinants of health and health inequalities through our health services, community and education settings. It is anticipated that the review will identify a number of key lifestyle policy issues such as smoking, alcohol and obesity where further action is required. It will identify practical ways to strengthen working between sectors to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of all sectors in our society. It is the aim of this process to engage leaders and policy makers across government and society to recognise that improving the public’s health is the responsibility of all sectors of society and not just the responsibility of the health service public health workforce.

All the initiatives being considered by the Special Action Group on Obesity will form part of the development of this Public Health Policy Framework, to enhance the health and wellbeing of all the population


Improving our own health is a responsibility we all share. I firmly believe that we must harness all the resources available to us to work seamlessly together to ensure that people can lead balanced and healthy lives.