We believe childhood obesity and emerging health inequalities between children are key issues that need to be addressed.
We also need Government collaboration to help tackle our national obesity levels, manipulative marketing, food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
The disparity between higher and lower income communities is highlighted in various research, such as the Growing Up in Ireland study. This study shows that among nine-year-olds 19% of boys and 18% of girls from professional households are overweight or obese, whereas the rate soars to 29% of boys and 38% of girls from semi-skilled and low-income households.
Ireland is on its way to being Europe’s most obese nation by 2030, with one in four schoolchildren currently overweight and obese. Overweight and obesity levels have doubled in the past two decades – yet there is good news as this is largely preventable.
The Irish Heart Foundation is advocating for measures to halt increasing levels of obesity by addressing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children; traffic light labelling for food products that identify products high in fat, sugar, salt; increasing levels of physical activity; and removing unhealthy foods and drinks from schools.
The National Obesity Plan
In September 2016 the Government launched its National Obesity Plan A Healthy Weight for Ireland. The Irish Heart Foundation welcomed the Government’s endorsement in tackling obesity noting crucial initiatives in the policy, such as the development of guidelines for planners around ‘no fry zones’, a national nutrition policy, the appointment of a clinical lead for obesity and a special focus on disadvantaged areas for health promotion programmes.
The Irish Heart Foundation publicly noted our concern about the significant role given to the food and beverage industry in the strategy. This includes a forum for engagement with industry and a voluntary code on marketing of unhealthy products to children, which has been proven not to work.
We were disappointed at the lack of dedicated funding and lack of named responsible officials for the strategy. We have also warned of the ‘implementation paralysis’ that has accompanied previous policies.
The time to introduce the Sugar Sweetened Drinks (SSD) levy has arrived. The Government has committed to implementing the tax in line with the UK in 2018 as one part of the wider programme of initiatives aimed at reducing child obesity.
In 2015 and 2016 we called for a 20% sugar sweetened drinks tax, with revenue estimated at €44.5 million being earmarked to establish a Children’s Future Health Fund to finance various schemes such as fruit and vegetable subsidies and community food programmes. The Irish Heart Foundation’s pre-Budget submission to government can be accessed here.
The widespread marketing of unhealthy foods (food and non-alcoholic drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) plays a causal role in unhealthy eating and obesity. Ireland restricts broadcast advertising to under-18s, of food high in fat, sugar and salt, on TV and radio up to 6pm, but has not yet tackled regulation of digital marketing. Children in Ireland are increasingly active on digital media, with most 9 to 16 year olds now going online via a smartphone.
In 2016 the Irish Heart Foundation commissioned a study to look at relevant digital trends, marketing strategies and parents’ awareness and views. The report shows how children are being emotionally manipulated by companies selling high-fat and high-sugar foods, targeting children through Facebook and other mediums through the use of sports stars, celebrities and games.
The Irish Heart Foundation is seeking the introduction of ‘no fry zones’ within one kilometre of schools in order to tackle childhood obesity. At present, 75% of Irish schools have at least one and 30% have at least five fast food outlets within 1km.
A co-ordinated, national approach to protect the health of children and young people across the country is required, with a national level guidance in place for all local authorities on the introduction of no-fry zones adjacent to schools. Such guidance could be provided through a specific Department of Environment guideline addressing fast food outlets, such as a ‘Guideline for Planning Authorities – Fast Food outlets’.
The Irish Heart Foundation has strongly backed a number of county council’s proposed amendments to development plans on implementing a ‘no-fry zone’ near schools. You can read the Irish Heart Foundation’s submission to Wicklow County Council here.
The in-depth review of evidence on obesity and food poverty in Ireland carried out by the Irish Heart Foundation and Social Justice Ireland revealed that the annual cost burden of obesity could rise from €1.3 billion by €5.4 billion by 2030.
The two organisations reveal that by targeting a 5% reduction in the population’s body mass index through a package of measures funded by revenue from a sugar sweetened drinks tax, the annual cost of obesity could actually be reduced by as much as €394 million by 2020.
Read the full Irish Heart Foundation / Social Justice Ireland report.