News Analysis

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Niamh Horan: Reilly chews the fat as nation gets more obese

Published 20/10/2013 | 05:00

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HEALTH OPTIONS: Niamh Horan is taking responsibility for her own health. Photo: Tony Gavin
OVERWEIGHT: Minister for Health James Reilly

Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Our Minister for Health's waistline.

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First, can I say this isn't by any means a personal attack on James Reilly. But it needs to be addressed.

It's not like I'm writing about an overweight actor or musician here – I think Karl Lagerfeld was rightly vilified last year when he criticised singer Adele for being what he described as "a little too fat".

But Dr Reilly is a man who has been personally charged with responsibility for our healthcare and for putting measures in place that will impact on the health and well-being of future generations. Yet at the same time he is visibly overweight. At the beginning of 2012 we were told Dr. Reilly was "leading by example" by tackling his own weight issue. It's been almost two years and as far as I can see it's still a problem.

So why are we all ignoring it?

Surely if our Minister for Finance was struggling with his personal finances, or a politician legislating on divorce was going through a divorce battle, we would feel the need to question it? So how is this case any different?

Looking across the water to Britain's health minister, Jeremy Hunt, or his American equivalent, Kathleen Sebelius, you can be damn sure that – put in the same position – this would have been discussed by now.

Us politician John McCain had to openly confront the concerns around his melanoma. But in Ireland we have a tendency to handle the health of politicians with kid gloves.

I don't.

Let's pick up the courage this weekend to address the issue after the so-called fat tax, a levy on fattening food and beverages, failed to materialise in the Budget. Yet again the Government piled more tax on alcohol and cigarettes, so why not even look at junk food?

The Department of Health confirmed that it made a representation to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to get it through, but Dr Reilly wasn't listened to and he hasn't said a word about it since.

This type of "passive acceptance of a missed opportunity to protect our children" – as the eminent obesity expert Professor Donal O'Shea explained it to me this weekend – wouldn't be tolerated in any other area. The legislating of seatbelts for children, for example, is a no-brainer – so why not this?

And why has Dr Reilly failed to say anything about the lack of legislation on this issue publicly since the announcement?

Junk food is far more addictive than cocaine, and the fallout is crippling our healthcare system. One in four three-year-olds is now overweight; one in four adults is obese; we are seeing heart disease risk in children as young as 10; the babies born in our delivery wards are getting fatter; and our obesity problem is costing the economy at least €1.6bn every year.

Even the Department of Health has admitted obesity is a "ticking time bomb".

But here's what really gets me. Why should people like myself, who take responsibility for their health as much as possible, have to pay the price for other people's gluttony and downright irresponsible behaviour?

Keeping an eye on my weight is a constant struggle. Getting up for a run, saying no to lots of my favourite foods and forking out money for my annual gym membership means I do my part, I suffer enough. And the healthcare system recoups the benefits.

But yet every night I see people lined up in the local take-away on my street, feeding their kids in the easiest way they know how.

You can buy a packet of carrots, a turnip, potatoes and tomatoes all for 39c each in a competitive supermarket – so save the bullshit excuse that it costs more to eat right. It's down to pure laziness and lack of incentive to take their own health into their hands.

And before you harp on about the perils of a nanny state and people's right to choose, it is my concern when I have private health insurance and yet, as a tax-payer, I am footing the bill for overweight nuisances who present themselves to hospital with all sorts of self-inflicted ailments.

Weight gain leads to diabetes, cholesterol, heart attacks and stroke – not to mention a multitude of cancers. And taxpayers like me are picking up the tab.

So if the majority of people won't listen to reason (and let's not fool ourselves into thinking they don't know how unhealthy the food they're eating is) well then let's hit them where it hurts – their wallets. Because right now the only self control they seem to possess is the one that tells them not to open their chip bag between the drive-thru and their couch.

By introducing a 'fat tax' we would rake in €178m with an €18m re-investment in anti-obesity. So I have to ask Dr Reilly why is he sending out so many mixed messages on the matter?

Last March, he unveiled a 64-point action plan to make Ireland a healthier place to live by 2025. But if this is our most serious health issue. Then why so passive?

Maybe I would believe his determination to tackle the country's weight problem if he could start with his own first.

Sunday Independent

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