UP to 80,000 people are now morbidly obese and in need of surgery, a health expert has warned.
An estimated 2pc of the population have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 40, significantly higher than the optimal scale of between 18.5 and 25, and placing them firmly in the morbidly obese category.
Now a specialist is calling for more bariatric surgeries -- operations including fitting gastric bands and stomach reductions -- to be carried out in a bid to cut the mounting cost to the taxpayer.
Dr Francis Finucane, a consultant endocrinologist who specialises in obesity, said carrying out more such surgeries could cut costs significantly.
He compared the problem to the obesity problems being faced in England, after a report in 2010 there found that offering bariatric surgeries to 25pc of those eligible would save the government £1.3bn (€1.56bn) over three years.
This was achieved by patients returning to work and a drop in benefits being paid out.
"The prevalence of obesity in Ireland is pretty much the same as in England and the costs associated with it would be similar. We can't afford not to provide this intervention," Dr Finucane said.
Only two public hospitals in Ireland provide such services, -- the national unit at St Columcille's Hospital, Loughlinstown, Dublin; and Galway University Hospital.
As the demand for bariatric surgery increases, patients are now waiting up to two years. Dr Finucane works at the Galway clinic, which carried out 40 operations on morbidly obese patients last year and 100 over the past three years.
While the operations are publicly funded, Dr Finucane said they offer significant savings to the State by reducing long-term health problems and allowing patients to return to work. He now wants to see more emphasis placed on such surgeries to deal with the backlog.
"We are getting busier and referral rates are up, there is a two-year waiting list for surgery here at present," he said.
Dr Finucane will be speaking at an obesity conference being held at NUI, Galway, this week. 'The Obesity Problem: Insights and analysis from economics, medicine and public health', will also hear from Professor John Cawley from Cornell University, widely regarded as one of the world's leading experts on obesity and the economy..
The conference, on Friday, will also look at the extent of the obesity problem and the economic costs.