Ireland launches national obesity plan

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

'Only 40% of us have a healthy weight,' said health minister Simon Harris in a foreword to the report. 'In terms of scale, this represents one of the biggest public health challenges Ireland is facing today.'  © World Obesity Federation
'Only 40% of us have a healthy weight,' said health minister Simon Harris in a foreword to the report. 'In terms of scale, this represents one of the biggest public health challenges Ireland is facing today.' © World Obesity Federation

Related tags Nutrition Food safety authority of ireland Snack functional beverage beverage

The Irish government has launched an ambitious national obesity plan which proposes a sugary drinks tax, maximum portion sizes, marketing restrictions and reformulation targets - but the lack of funding to implement the policy has led to criticism from campaigners.

The policy​ will take a dual top-down and bottom-up approach with targets and measurable outcomes over the next 10 years, and wants to see “appropriate support”​ from the food industry.

Priority steps for the first year include developing proposals for fiscal measures to promote healthy eating, including a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages by the end of this year, as well as legislation for “calorie posting”.

It will also agree food reformulation targets with industry – although it does not stipulate whether these will be mandatory or voluntary – and put in place a code of practice for the marketing, sponsorship and product placement of food and drinks. This will be set by the Department of Health in collaboration with business association Ibec, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII) and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) over the next 10 years.

It will also consider maximum portion sizes for unhealthy foods and drinks, starting in 2017 on a voluntary basis initially.

Healthy Ireland?

Healthy Ireland?

• Only one in four (26%) report that they eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

• Just over one in five (22%) report that they do not eat fruit or vegetables every day.

• Almost two in every three (65%) report that they consume snack foods or sugar-sweetened drinks daily.

• Almost two in every three (62%) eat snack foods daily, consuming an average of two portions per day.

Source: Healthy Ireland Survey

“Marketing and pricing play key roles in shaping our food choices. It is therefore essential that the way food and drinks are promoted and marketed reduces exposure to unhealthy food using nutrition profiling," ​reads the policy report.

“Nutrition profiling allows foods and drinks to be classified in terms of their overall nutrition and not just individual nutrients, such as fat or sugar. It is also important that the foods and beverages consumed by adults and children are broadly aligned with the nutrition guidance to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.”

The Department of Health will provide overall stewardship of the policy, and will work collaboratively with international organisations such as the World Health

© Department of Health, Ireland

Organisation (WHO), the EU and Northern Irish institutions.

One of the short term targets for the next five years is a sustained downward trend (averaging at 0.5% per year) in excess weight levels of adults and children, and a reduction in the gap in obesity levels between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups of 10%.

FDII Director Paul Kelly said it supported the collaborative approach to diet and public health but rejected fiscal meaures.

“There are elements of the new policy that the food and drink industry can support through our work on effective measures like product reformulation, nutrition labelling, product choice and workplace wellbeing. However, the food sector is adamantly opposed to the inclusion of policy measures, like food and beverage taxes, which are unfair, discriminatory and not evidence based,” ​he said. 

Public health over profit? Fat chance, says IHF

Meanwhile the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) said it was concerned about the significant role given to the food and beverage industry in the strategy, such as the forum for engagement with industry and a voluntary code on marketing of unhealthy products to children.

Head of advocacy for the NGO, Chris Macey said: “The only way such plans could work is if industry takes action that puts the interests of public health above its own corporate interests. Sadly, that just isn’t going to happen.”

Macey also drew attention to the lack of funding specifically set aside for the policy. It’s a worrying sign that there is currently no dedicated funding for the strategy, whilst we already know that one of its key measures, the imposition of a sugar-sweetened drinks tax, has been postponed until 2018 at least, despite overwhelming public and political support.” 

Click here​ to read the policy in full.

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