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'Reilly needs Govt support on health measures'
[ by Niall Hunter, Editor www.irishhealth.com]
A leading heart health campaigner has said Health Minister James Reilly needs more support from his colleagues in Government in his efforts to reduce our obesity and heart disease rates.
Michael O'Shea, who this month retired at CEO of the Irish Heart Foundation, also warned that much more needs to be done to tackle our spiralling obesity problem, with two-thirds of the population now overweight and our obesity rates rising by 1% per annum.
He said he would give credit to Dr Reilly for his support for banning smoking in cars with children and heavy increases in excise duty on tobacco.
"However, he badly needs the wider support of the cabinet with these proposals, and I don't think he is getting that support at the moment. The same would go for plans on a 'fat tax' and on taxing sugary drinks. I think the Minister's heart is in the right place but he needs the support of Government with any initiatives in this area."
Mr O'Shea, who has been head of the Heart Foundation for the past 12 years, claims the tobacco, food and drinks industries have far too much influence on Government and are seeking to stymie moves to protect people against the adverse health effects of their products.
"The tobacco industry has been busy in the corridors of power persuading Government that if it puts up excise duty on tobacco, smuggling will simply grow out of all proportion. We have always rejected this - significant increases in taxation have been shown to be the single most important aspect of any tobacco control strategy."
"If you put in adequate controls against smuggling and you impose high enough penalties for this you will deal with the smuggling issue. Our penalties for smuggling are very inadequate and need to be increased."
He says the Australian Government increased the price of a pack of cigarettes by 25% in 2011 and in the following months 1.2 million smokers made a serious attempt to quit-of these 300,000 succeeded. "At the same time the Australian Government has kept a lid on smuggling- the rate is 5% over there and around 24% here."
Mr O'Shea estimates that our obesity rate is increasing by 1% per annum among all age groups. Latest estimates are that 24% of the population is obese and a further 37% are overweight. So in all you have 61% of the population with a weight problem - nearly two in every three of our population is either overweight or obese."
Mr O'Shea pointed out that the Government Obesity Taskforce report of 2005 had 90 recommendations, but very few had been implemented.
He said we need to look at having a 'traffic light' system on the labelling of food products.
"Consumers should be able to see at a glance what is healthy or unhealthy. At the moment it is far too complex for the consumer to interpret the nutritional information on packaging. Fat, sugar and salt content should be colour-coded. The food industry has opposed this."
Overall, Michael O'Shea believes the food, drink and tobacco industries have far too much influence on Government when it comes to implementing public health measures. "New lobbying legislation may help in this regard, but as things stand, I believe these industries have too much influence in the corridors of power."
While the spectre of potential job losses in the various industries is frequently cited as a result of increased regulation, Mr O'Shea claims that is essentially a short-term view.
"There are serious economic issues at stake here, in terms of what it will ultimately cost the Exchequer and the economy down the line in terms of treating more acute and chronic illness in high-tech hospitals as a result of failing to tackle poor lifestyle and diet. Improving the health of the nation will ultimately benefit the economy."
Mr O'Shea said our spiralling obesity levels were a 'timebomb' for the future of healthcare and society in general.
Asked if increasing regulations and restrictions on how the public consumes was simply too much 'nanny statism', he said he believed that using education and health promotion to encourage healthier living was beneficial, but was very challenging on its own in the current 'obesogenic' environment in Ireland.
"At every hand's turn there is widespread availability of energy-dense foods, often at the eye level of children, in retail outlets so they can pester their parents to buy them. We are up against a very coordinated and sophisticated marketing mix to entice children to get their parents to purchase these foods. And then these foods sold in fast-food restaurants or other outlets are relatively cheap. It's no wonder really that two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese."
What about the argument that regulating for healthier food options, for example fat taxes or sugary drink taxes, will hit the less well-off the hardest?
Mr O'Shea says that a coordinated Government approach is needed, for example increasing taxes on energy-dense foods could be offset by decreasing the cost of public transport, or fruit etc. "The obesity taskforce in 2005 addressed such issues but implementation of the recommendations has been largely ignored."
"Ultimately, I fear that society and Government may only take action when we can no long afford to treat chronic illness resulting from our obesity epidemic."
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