Health warnings: Target the smokers not the elderly

If our children are our future, we could be in real trouble unless we face up to some unpalatable facts. More than a quarter of children are now overweight or obese, which is double the figure of 15 years ago.

Nine out of 10 doctors rate spiralling childhood obesity as this country’s top health priority. In the past two years, two-thirds of doctors report seeing more obese children than they saw two years ago. Not surprisingly, those doctors also report an increase in obesity-related illnesses.

Members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Ireland warn that they are seeing an increase in children with mental health problems over the past couple of years. These include children suffering anxiety and depression, as well as a significant increase in cases of self-harm.

A public opinion poll conducted by college in the North indicates a distinct lack of public awareness is contributing to the obesity and mental health problems. The majority admitted they do not know how active children under five should be. A third of the parents acknowledged that they were too busy to cook healthy food for their children, and a third did not know what amount of food constituted a healthy diet.

The overwhelming majority of paediatricians indicate that they are worried that children with mental health problems are not being treated quickly enough. The president of the college warns that it is essential to get “key public health messages out to families” in order to reduce the numbers of children suffering from obesity and mental health related illness.

In his last submissions as minister for health to the Oireachtas Committee last week, James Reilly agreed in principle that instead of loading the premium for anyone who waits until after the age of 34 to take out health insurance, it would be fairer to tackle those who persist with unhealthy lifestyles, such a smoking tobacco, or being obese.

Smoking and obesity are major contributory factors in undermining the health of people. Instead of targeting older people, consultant and oncologist senator John Crown argued it would be a better to require higher premiums from people who put their own health at risk by smoking.

Mr Reilly, who will still have significant input in public health policies as minister for children, said he would be “very well disposed” towards providing non-smokers with favourable treatment. This would be a positive way of encouraging people to avoid smoking.

Of course, those smoking tobacco would probably argue that they are already contributing extra as a result of the penal excise duty on cigarettes. Society has been paying a heavy price for the irresponsible way in which cigarette smoking was recklessly glamorised for decades. Every opportunity to highlight reckless irresponsibility of smoking should be exploited in the interest of all, especially younger people.

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