Tackling Obesity: A Government Approach. An address by Mr Pat the Cope Gallagher TD, Minister of State, Department of Health and Children at the International Health Conference: Recent Advances in Clinical Medicine, Public Health and Health Policy
Good Morning Ladies and Gentleman.
I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me here this morning and giving me the opportunity to share with you our experience in Ireland in tackling obesity.
As you are aware, obesity has been classed by the WHO as an epidemic. In Ireland 18% of adults are obese and 39% are overweight as indicated by the North/South Food Consumption Survey (2001). In addition, data suggests that there could be more than 300,000 overweight and obese children on the island of Ireland. The rate is rising at a probable 10,000 per annum.
Obesity is a complex condition that affects and threatens to overwhelm virtually all age and socio-economic groups. The importance of addressing and halting the rise in obesity is critical. As we are all aware, overweight and obesity contribute to a significant number of illnesses including, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, excess cholesterol, stroke, cardiovascular disease, gallstones, gout, some types of cancer and psychological problems.
National Taskforce on Obesity
In response to these trends and in line with the EU Health Council Conclusions that Member States need to address the issue of obesity using established national structures, a National Taskforce on Obesity was established in 2004.
A key role for the Taskforce was to set out a strategic framework that would:
- encompasses the determinants of overweight and obesity;
- identify best practice for prevention, detection and treatment; and
- create 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.
The Taskforce carried out a comprehensive and systematic consultation process. Key stakeholders, as identified by the Taskforce, made submissions. Members of the public, organizations and groups were also invited to make submissions. Consultation also involved people who were overweight, people who were obese and from organizations which support people in managing their weight.
The Taskforce report, “Obesity: the Policy Challenges” was published in 2005. It contains 93 recommendations. These relate to actions across six broad sectors:
- high-level government;
- social and community;
- food, commodities, production and supply and
- the physical environment,
This report encourages and facilitates a healthier lifestyle, thereby reducing the incidences of non-communicable diseases that are currently afflicting many people in Ireland.
It highlights the need for ‘joined-up’ policy, cross collaboration between all key stakeholders and real practical engagement by both the public and the private sectors.
At an early stage my Department was able to begin funding implementation of the recommendations that relate to the health sector. For example, additional funding has been provided to provide Specialist Community Dietitian and Physical Activity posts for obesity and weight management and for the development of Specialist Hospital Services for obesity treatment.
However, most of the recommendations in the Taskforce Report fall outside the remit of the Department of Heath and Children. For example:
- It is recommended that the Department of Finance should carry out research to examine the influence of fiscal policies on consumer purchasing and their impact on overweight and obesity;
- Guidelines for food and nutrition labelling should be reviewed to ensure that labelling is accurate, consistent, user-friendly and contains information on portion sizes and nutrient content;
- The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should develop coherent planning policies for urban/rural housing, transport, amenity spaces and workplace settings to encourage spontaneous increases in physical activity in adults and children;
- A clear code of practice in relation to the provision and content of vending machines in post primary should be developed by industry, the Department of Education and Science and schools’ bodies.
The Taskforce recognises that a multi-sectoral approach is necessary, involving other state agencies and government departments and real engagement of the public and private sectors to implement all of the report’s recommendations. This has presented challenges to my Department. My Department is currently finalising proposals for the development of a mechanism which will facilitate inter-sectoral working on the prevention of chronic diseases including obesity across all relevant government departments. Through this inter-sectoral group we ensure full implementation of the Taskforce’s recommendations.
With regards to increasing levels of physical activity we have been proactive and have responded in a variety of ways through many successful programmes and initiatives. These include the publication of a National Play Policy document for Children, entitled ‘Ready, Steady, Play’. The National Children’s Office is currently working on the development of a National Recreation Policy for 12-18 year olds.
The investment by the Government in recent years has put much of the infrastructure in place to address physical inactivity. This included the appointment, for the first time of physical activity co-ordinators throughout the country to promote physical activity amongst the population.
Some of you who have been to Ireland and may have seen signs for “Slí na Sláinte” around the country. These are sign-posted walking routes that show the distance in metres or km to particular locations. This is an initiative of the Irish Heart Foundation, which is partly funded by the Department of Health and Children. There is on-going development of the walks nationwide giving people the opportunity to walk in healthy safe environments.
My Department is currently developing a national nutrition policy which will provide strategic direction on nutrition for the next ten years. The target group is young people, 0-18 years, and the priority actions are obesity and food poverty. A national consultation has taken place and the policy will be published shortly.
Among the key strategic objectives are to increase the percentage of young people in schools who consume the recommended daily servings of food for a healthy diet and to help prevent overweight and obesity. It will be necessary also to facilitate an increase in the percentage of parents providing healthy food choices in the home. Intake of fruit and vegetable intake among young people must increase. We must also develop and manage initiatives to care for overweight young people and prevent them from making the transition to obesity.
Food Poverty is another important area that will be tackled in the new policy. My Department will work in partnership with other Government departments and agencies to promote healthy eating and help reduce food poverty among young people. This will facilitate the provision of healthy foods that will be are available, affordable and accessible for young people. National schemes and policies will be supported to improve healthy eating for young people in socially disadvantaged communities. It is essential that we support healthy eating and a reduction in food poverty for infants and young children.
Since taking up my current post in the Department of Health and Children I have been encouraged by the strong commitment of people working at local level. As a consequence, I believe that if we all engage in joined up thinking then positive change can happen as witnessed by the success of the workplace smoking ban, which we introduced in 2004.
As Minister with responsibility for Health Promotion I am committed to continuing programmes and initiating policies to promote healthy lifestyles. Working in partnership with public and private sectors, and with the support and commitment of the government and the public I believe we can and will achieve our aims and objectives.