Leo Varadkar: We can't make you fit, but we can help you make better choices
Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30
The Government can't make you fit or healthy. The freedom to live our own lives and make our own choices is a fundamental human right.
But the Government does have a responsibility to look after its citizens, promote their well-being, and protect them from adverse influences.
Our laws and policies can create the environment in which more people can make the right choices for their personal heath. And today we are publishing the results of a fascinating Healthy Ireland survey of the nation's health.
It gives us a valuable snapshot of factors, such as physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, diet and mental well-being.
It's the first objective measure of our health since the Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition (SLáN) report in 2007.
There are some really interesting findings - some good, some not so good.
Less than one in five of us now smokes regularly and just 19pc have a daily habit - a drop from the 2007 level of 24pc.
Lots of people are getting regular exercise, although most are still not exercising enough.
The proportion of overweight or obese people has levelled out, and actually fallen slightly since 2007.
Predictions that Ireland is on course to become the fattest country in Europe seem way off the mark, but 60pc of people still carry too much weight.
More than 7,500 people took part in the survey, using a representative sample, between November 2014 and August 2015.
This is really useful information for the Government, and for everyone with a stake in the nation's health. It will be repeated every year. What you don't measure, you can't improve.
In health, we focus a lot on day-to-day challenges and problems, but we will never get on top of problems or get spending under control if we don't improve our health as a nation.
That's why the survey will influence new Department of Health policies and strategies, like the National Physical Activity Plan, and the Obesity Policy and Action Plan.
The Public Health Alcohol Bill will tackle alcohol misuse through minimum unit pricing, tough new advertising restrictions, hard-hitting health warnings, and penalties for breaching the sponsorship code.
From May 2016, all tobacco packs will have to be produced in plain packaging and from the following year it will be illegal to sell non-plain packs.
We have also toughened up on sunbed use to reduce the incidence of skin cancer.
Some of the survey's findings around sexual health are worrying, such as the proportion of people not using protection with new partners. This will feed into the new Sexual Health Strategy.
And the next ambition of Minister of State Kathleen Lynch is to make more mental health services available at primary care level.
One thing we can all do is take advantage of the many screening programmes provided free of charge by the State: BreastCheck, BowelScreen, CervicalCheck, newborn deafness and diabetic retinopathy.
Only this week I helped to launch the HSE campaign to encourage people to get the flu vaccine.
The survey also asked people what change they would make in their lives. The most common response was 'being more physically active'.
This response and the success of TV programmes like 'Operation Transformation', the running and cycling boom, the growth in fitness centres and our ongoing participation in all types of sport, combined with the fact that everyone is now much more aware of their health, gives me hope about our future health.