Minister refuses to ban the sale of sugary drinks in our schools
Obesity expert warns O'Sullivan that crisis has passed tipping point
EDUCATION Minister Jan O'Sullivan has been criticised by obesity experts after refusing to ban fizzy drinks vending machines in second-level schools.
Despite growing alarm over rising numbers of overweight children, Ms O'Sullivan has rejected calls to outlaw the calorie-laden drinks and foods, which are generating significant revenue for cash-strapped schools annually.
"Banning things can be difficult and it doesn't necessarily stop practices. I think right across society that can be the case," she said.
Instead, the minister wants schools themselves to make more healthy options available.
"I think education about healthy options, and providing healthy options, is the best way we can actually achieve results."
Reacting to the comments, obesity expert Dr Donal O'Shea of St Columcille's Hospital, who is treating some teenagers whose weight has ballooned to a dangerous 20 stone, warned that "radical" action is needed.
He argued that foods which are fuelling young people's weight need to be removed as a source of daily temptation in schools.
"We have gone beyond the tipping point and need to get radical. Kids should bring their lunch to school. At least 60pc of vending machines should have healthy foods and drinks, moving to 100pc," he said.
The minister was responding to a new report by the Royal College of Physicians, which urgently called for vending machines and shops in secondary schools to only be allowed to sell healthy foods.
Schools are paid between €3,500 to €4,000 a year by vending companies to have the soft drink and snack food machines on their campuses and while some have introduced healthy options, the sale of fruit and cereal bars has tended to be low.
The Department of Education said the most recent survey figures for 2012 show that 30pc of the country's 723 second-level schools have vending machines, down from 35pc in 2009.
A spokesperson for the department told the Irish Independent: "The income generated by vending machines is a matter for the schools and the suppliers. The department had no information on this."
Ms O'Sullivan said that by the time children start school, eating habits can be difficult to reverse and there is a role for better education in healthy eating during early childhood years. "It is broader than the Department of Education," she added.
The minister said that she was "very concerned about the general pattern of unhealthy habits developing at an early age amongst children.
"So I think that early intervention on this is absolutely crucial," said Ms O'Sullivan.
She added: "The responsibility is right across government to provide opportunities such as more space for physical activity.
"A lot of it is around society adopting a more healthy eating approach."
Lynda O Shea of the National Parents' Council for second level said it does not have a policy on vending machines in schools.
From her own experience in St Paul's Community College, Waterford, she said an attempt to offer healthy options such as fruit in the machines led to food being thrown out.
"We would hope that any school with a vending machine would put in a healthy option. Some I know use them for revenue in the school and others have them to allow students to get what they need. It would be a bit of an income for the schools.
"Whether it would be an important income, I am not sure," said Ms O'Shea.
The food and drink industry here has signed up to a voluntary code stating that vending machines should include a range of products, including healthier options.
The code prohibits king-size packets and it also bans the installation of vending machines in primary schools.
Dr O'Shea said that in education and healthcare settings, the "healthy option needs to become the only option".