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Obesity cost to quadruple to €1,175 for every man woman and child in Ireland

The cost of obesity could more than quadruple within the next 15 years to a total of €1,175 a year for every man woman and child in the State unless more is done to tackle the problem, a joint Irish Heart Foundation and Social Justice Ireland report has revealed.

However, 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.

An in-depth review of evidence on obesity and food poverty in Ireland carried out by the two organisations shows that total costs are set to rise from an annual burden of €1.13 billion  to €5.4 billion by 2030 unless strong remedial action is taken.  These costs will mainly be driven by the increased incidence of chronic disease, including coronary heart disease and diabetes.

Research shows that increases in obesity are a major cause of chronic diseases. The Department of the Taoiseach has identified chronic disease as one of the five major social risks facing Ireland. The policy implications of having such high levels of obesity are clear, and if present trends continue and no policy interventions are made the cost of obesity could rise to over €4.3 billion by 2020 and to €5.4 billion in 2030, research by public health experts led by Professor Ivan Perry has shown.

Any failure to take the decisive action required to tackle obesity so we are forced to bear cost increases of this magnitude is unthinkable, particularly in terms of delivering our health services. In addition to the health impact of growing levels of obesity, particularly on our younger generation, the additional financial pressure on our health services means that people with every type of illness would undoubtedly suffer.

The repost questions whether enough is being done to counter this threat, both to individual health and wider society. Policymakers need to recognise that obesity really is a life-or-death issue for many thousands of our citizens. The effect of the choices the State makes now will be felt for generations to come.

The Irish Heart Foundation and Social Justice Ireland say a 7-point plan is needed to tackle obesity, much of which could be funded by a sugar sweetened drinks tax. This includes fruit and vegetable subsides; actions to tackle food poverty; removing junk food from schools; planning to keep fast food outlets away from schools; front of pack traffic light labelling; restrictions on food and beverage marketing to children; and more effective measures to promote physical activity.

In order to address the huge challenge that obesity presents to Irish policy makers the Irish Heart Foundation and Social Justice Ireland are proposing that Government implement policies to reduce the population’s body mass index (BMI) by 5% by 2020.  Research shows this would produce savings of up to €394 million by 2020, not to mention the indirect economic and social benefits of a healthier population.

In order to achieve immediate progress towards a 5 per cent reduction in BMI by 2020 and the related savings and health benefits both organisations propose that Government introduce a sugar-sweetened drinks tax in Budget 2016 and use the revenue of up to €134 million generated to subsidise fruit and vegetables and to develop effective programmes to address obesity and food poverty. 

The UN has identified the introduction of food taxes and subsidies to promote a healthy diet as one of the interventions that can reduce the incidence of chronic disease, of which one of the key drivers is obesity. 

The report notes that a 10 per cent sugar sweetened drink tax would reduce adult obesity levels by 1.3% - almost 10,000 people – according to a health impact assessment carried out for the Department of Health. By spending the proceeds on implementing a national anti-obesity plan the impact on obesity levels could be far greater.

According to the Irish Heart Foundation and Social Justice Ireland the package of measures required to tackle obesity should include:

Subsidies: Introduce fruit and vegetable subsidies, targeted at disadvantaged areas where obesity levels are almost three times higher than in better off communities

Food poverty: Develop community food initiatives, including growing food and cooking programmes.

Schools: Remove all junk food from schools and extend existing nutritious food provision models which are already operating nationally. Extend free school meals programmes. Develop healthy living modules on primary and secondary curricula.

Planning: Introduce ‘no fry zones’ within 1 km of schools. At present 75% of Irish schools have at least one and 30% have at least five fast food outlets within 1km.

Front of pack labelling: Stop protecting the international processed food industry from having to inform consumers about products with high fat, sugar and salt content with red, amber and green traffic light labelling.

Marketing to children: No advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt on TV before 9pm. Regulation of other media channels, such as the Internet, on computer games, via text messaging etc.

Physical activity: Ensure that children get 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Review

The paper is available to download here.