Oireachtas group to tackle childhood obesity

A new cross-party Oireachtas group is seeking more effective ways to tackle childhood obesity and food poverty.

In particular, it will consider using a sugar tax that could be used to subsidise healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables.

The group is chaired by Independent Senator Jillian van Turnhout, and the Irish Heart Foundation is providing a secretariat to support it. It is also being assisted by other organisations, including the Children’s rights Alliance and Social Justice Ireland.

Ms van Turnhout said the reason why the group was needed was “abundantly clear” — one in four children were overweight or obese and one in five were going to bed hungry.

“Children who are both obese and living in food poverty is a feature of modern malnutrition,” she said.

“Children under the age of 15 are showing early signs of heart disease and plaque build-up in major arteries to the brain. Despite this, the national response remains inadequate.”

She said up to now, action to tackle obesity had focused on individual behaviour change through education, awareness, and media programmes.

“But they don’t take into account the key drivers of obesity — the increasing availability and intense marketing of unhealthy food and drinks that are becoming cheaper all the time compared to healthy produce.”

Ms van Turnhout said the Oireachtas children’s future health group would seek to find ways to tackle the root causes of childhood obesity and poverty together and to target disadvantaged communities.

The group will also examine school food provision, “no fry zones” around schools, the impact of low incomes on healthy eating, food labelling, and the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

Later this year the group will launch the first ever study on food marketing to children via the internet and social media, currently being carried out by the Irish Heart Foundation.

Consultant endocrinologist and a member of the Irish Heart Foundation Nutrition Council, Prof Donal O’Shea, said it was hard to understand why there had been so little sustained action to tackle obesity to date.

Nevertheless, he said society was now becoming more health conscious and the Oireachtas group could play a major role in building momentum for change.

Prof O’Shea claimed that the soft drinks manufacturer, Coca Cola, already knew the game was up — it was buying more bottled water companies.

However, other food companies were fighting back offering free trips abroad and there was “biology” behind that kind of advertising.

“The same part of the brain that likes foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar likes a flutter and it’s tickled by the advertisement — the chance to win something,” he said.

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