Lessons for Ireland from UK’s war on child obesity

Lessons Ireland UK child obesity

One in four Irish children are obese and eight out of ten fail to get an hour a day of physical activity

The British government has been accused of ‘watering down’ their new strategy combating childhood obesity by health experts, writes Fiona O’Brien.

Rates of obesity are rising in both UK and Ireland at a faster pace than the rest of Europe with one recent study showing that Irish men will be the fattest in Europe by 2025. Earlier this year the Lancet journal reported that 38 per cent of men will be obese in less than a decade, topping the European table along with the UK.

For females again the two countries will top the obesity poll by 2025, with 38 per cent of British women set to be obese and 37 per cent of Irish women if current lifestyle trends stay the same. Britain’s strategy, published last Thursday, is designed to cut soaring rates of obesity amongst children and contains voluntary targets for food and drink companies.

Lessons Ireland UK child obesity

But the British Medical Association has claimed that it ‘rowed back’ on initial promises due to pressure from the fast food industry. Among the measures that appear to have been dropped was a ban on junk food advertising to children, which was key in the Public Health England’s (PHE) recommendations.

At the time they said there was evidence to prove that advertising “consistently influence[s] food preference, choice and purchasing in children and adults”. The strategy does lay out plans to establish new nutrient criteria for foods, which could in future change the way certain products are allowed to market their products on children’s TV.

Jenny Rosborough, a nutritionist from Action on Sugar, said: “This is an embarrassing and inexcusable waste of a fantastic opportunity to put the nation’s health first.”

But the Department of Health defended their ‘extensive’ strategy. “This government is absolutely committed to reducing childhood obesity and one of the best ways to do this is to boost sports in schools,” said public health minister Nicola Blackwood.


“Team GB has been a huge inspiration at the Rio Olympics. We need to keep that inspiration alive when children go back to school in September – that’s why we’re asking schools and parents to ensure children do an extra hour a of physical activity every day.

“Initiatives like this will make a huge difference to children’s health and fitness and we hope our new measures on school sport will help to create future Team GB Olympians.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX Shutterstock (4553009a) MODEL RELEASED Spain, Gijon, sportive young woman running on path VARIOUS

The government’s plan challenges the food and drink industry to cut five per cent of the sugar in products popular with children over the next year. It says the ultimate target is a 20 per cent sugar cut, with the PHE monitoring the progress over the next four years.

The plan also calls on primary schools to deliver at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and to help parents and carers ensure children get the same amount at home. It will complement the sugar tax on fizzy drinks which will come into effect in 2018, announced by then chancellor George Osborne in this year’s Budget. There will be two bands, one for total sugar content above 5g per 100 millilitres and a higher band for the most sugary drinks with more than 8g per 100 millilitres.

At the time it was estimated they will be levied at 18p and 24p per litre. Drinks which would fall under the higher rate of the sugar tax include Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Lucozade Energy and Irn-Bru. The lower rate would catch drinks such as Dr Pepper, Fanta, Sprite, Schweppes Indian tonic water and alcohol-free shandy.

Lessons Ireland UK child obesity


Sugar tax Ireland’s Minister of Social Protection Leo Varadkar, a qualified GP who was Health Minister before the new government was announced also called for Ireland to bring in a similar sugar tax. In response the Irish Beverage Council (IBC) claimed that the proposed tax on could result in a loss of approximately €60 million euro per annum in sales to competitors based in Northern Ireland.

The IBC also estimated a corresponding loss to the exchequer of approximately €35 million euro in lost VAT revenue per year.

“Taxation is a blunt instrument and is an inappropriate model to effectively deal with concerns on obesity in Ireland. As it cannot realistically be expected to reduce consumption of soft drinks, it will prove ineffective as a public health measure while harming the economy,” they said in their pre-budget submission “Sugar Tax: All Cost, No Benefit”.

The Irish Heart Foundation released the following statement in response to the IBC report: “We are not surprised by the views expressed by the Irish Beverage Council but it continues to be disappointing to hear when we are facing significant obesity and food poverty problems among our children that are not going to go away if we continue to rely on voluntary codes adopted by industry.

Lessons Ireland UK child obesity

“Right now we live in a country where obesity among children aged 8- 12 years old has risen two-to-four fold since 1990 and it has to stop. Sugar sweetened drinks are the most consumed beverage in Ireland. These drinks, with no nutritional value, are being consumed by 53% of four-year-olds and 75% of 5 to 18 year olds. Not only will such a levy drive a reduction in consumption of these high sugar products, it will also provide funding for vital health and nutrition programmes specifically targeting children and young people through a dedicated Children’s Future Health Fund.”

Here in the UK, the government strategy come in as accepted research show that obese children are likely to become obese adults, and in America alone obese adults spend 42 per cent more on direct healthcare costs than those who are at a healthy weight.


A recent study by Safe Food Europe found that 75 per cent of children in Northern Ireland and 80 per cent of children in the Republic do not meet Government Physical Activity Guidelines of 60 minutes per day. Safe Food also reported that while one in four children were obese parents found it difficult to recognise when their child was not of a healthy weight.

They also found dwindling numbers of activity, while figures for sedentary activities rose. In 1981 half of children walked to school, a number that halved to 25 per cent in 2014. Over this period 34 per cent of preschool children now have a TV in their bedroom while this age group spent an average of 2.2 hours a day watching television.

Lessons Ireland UK child obesity
Nicola Blackwood Junior Health Minister

In Ireland 20 per cent of the energy intake from a child’s diet comes from sugary drinks, biscuits, confectionary, chocolate and cake while most children do not meet the dietary recommendations for fruit and vegetables, saturated fat or sugar.

So Ireland could well benefit from the strategy implemented over here, especially when it comes to increased activity levels.

In the UK School sports will get more funds, which is boosted by the tax on sugary drinks. When monitoring the scheme the PHE will then advice the government on whether ‘alternative levers need to be used’.

The PHE will also set targets for sugar content per 100g, and calorie caps for certain products while a new voluntary “healthy schools rating scheme” will be taken into account during school inspections.


Sign in or create your account to join the discussion

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways