Tackling childhood obesity: Planning to reduce waistlines

CONSIDERING the level of childhood obesity in this country, it seems astonishing that, as our report today reveals, so many organs of the state should fail to take action to regulate the proximity of fast-food outlets to schools, playgrounds, and other areas where younger children congregate.

Among the country’s 32 local authorities, only Wexford County Council has a clear policy that prohibits placing fast food outlets from within 200 metres of schools. This is despite the fact that, since 2013, Government guidelines advise local authorities to give careful consideration to the location of such businesses near schools and parks.

Some of the councils have said they would consider such a move but others defend doing nothing by suggesting that limiting these businesses would contravene other planning guidelines as well as EU and domestic competition law.

While the freedom to trade is an important feature of our economy, surely the health and well-being of children must come first. A quarter of Irish nine-year-olds are overweight and dealing with the health issues that arise from that is costing the Irish taxpayer €1 billion a year. As well as that, the World Health Organisation says Ireland is on course to be the fattest country in Europe by 2030.

That is not altogether the fault of fast-food outlets but it is clear they play a part in expanding our waistlines. Equally clear is the fact that many of the major operators deliberately target children by seeking to place their businesses where youngsters are present.

International outlets like McDonald’s also offer free toys with their children’s meals, a practice that has been outlawed on health grounds by San Francisco in the United States and should, perhaps, be considered here.

Last summer the Department of Health announced it had set up a technical group to look at the marketing, promotion, and sponsorship of unhealthy food. Perhaps it should, first and foremost, look at the failure by local authorities to take the health of the nation into account in the area of planning.

Using planning regulations as a health promotion measure may seem a bit crude and strange when there is so much else to be done to make Ireland a fitter nation.

However, anything that can help make our youngsters less prone to gorging on fast food should be put in place because obese children invariably grow up to become obese adults.

It need not be so but we need a change in attitude to make serious inroads. As with drink-driving and smoking indoors, it is possible to persuade the vast majority of people that certain practices are no longer acceptable.

It will take more than planning regulations to reverse obesity levels. It will also require varied and complex interventions and sustained public policy responses.

During the last three decades of the 20th century, a two- to three-fold increase in the rate of overweight and obesity in school-age children was reported across north America and western Europe, Ireland included.

Even a child can see this cannot be allowed to continue.

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