Missed chance to tackle obesity crisis

For the first time in history, more people are being killed by obesity than by not having enough to eat.

This extraordinary phenomenon will again turn the spotlight on Ireland where obesity is fast becoming a national crisis.

The problem is that Irish people are developing a sweet tooth, joining the global craving for sugar widely seen as one of the causes behind epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. It is no exaggeration to suggest that an obesity timebomb is threatening the health and wellbeing of thousands of children and adults in this country.

What is most worrying is the escalating nature of a trend which will undoubtedly result in growing numbers of fatalities from obesity, adding to the soaring cost of an already ailing health sector and putting an unsustainable burden on taxpayers in an economy brought to its knees by voracious bankers, developers and politicians.

As international researchers have found, similar excesses are leading to obesity — a potentially lethal condition — becoming a global epidemic. A major health survey, one of the largest ever carried out and which looked at the causes of death on a worldwide basis, found that more people died from obesity in 2010 than had perished from malnutrition 20 years earlier when the scourge of famine was widespread.

According to Professor Alan Lopez, a leading authority on obesity, the problem is not confined to rich countries but is also spreading across developing nations. Changing lifestyles, not least the tendency to sit for hours before a TV or computer screen, are among the main reasons why people grow fat and overweight. As a result of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food and not getting enough exercise, they are literally putting their own lives at risk.

The spread of obesity in Ireland has been charted by surveys showing that one in every four adults is obese compared to one in ten barely three decades ago. Nor is the long-term prognosis encouraging. Among 5 to 12-year-olds, for instance, 22% were described as overweight or obese, while 11% of Irish teenagers are overweight, with 8% obese.

Considering the scale of this country’s looming obesity crisis, it was not surprising that both doctors and food and health experts were shocked following Budget 2013, when Health Minister James Reilly revealed that his colleague, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, had refused to sanction a tax on sugary drinks because they already attracted 23% Vat, while neither bottled water nor milk attract any Vat rating.

The political irony is that by putting a sugar tax on sweetened drinks, Mr Noonan could have raised an estimated €50m annually, almost double the €26m he is taking out of the pockets of 70,000 carers by slashing their meagre respite care grants by €325 or nearly 20% a year.

So, instead of taxing an industry whose products are blamed by doctors for contributing to health problems, the Government is hitting vulnerable carers who save the State billions of euro every year by caring for their loved ones at home rather than in hospitals or nursing homes.

It was a missed opportunity by an insensitive Government — not alone to protect some of Ireland’s most vulnerable people but also to combat its increasingly lethal obesity crisis.


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