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Obesity timebomb ‘could bring down Northern Ireland's health service’

By Lisa Smyth

Two-thirds of men and 50% of women across Northern Ireland are expected to be clinically obese by 2050, leading to the collapse of the health service, Assembly members have warned.

The Stormont health committee has proposed a series of recommendations to tackle the growing problem of obesity in Northern Ireland — including compulsory PE classes for all schoolchildren, restrictions on advertising foods with high levels of salt, sugar and fat, and the traffic light labelling system becoming the norm on all food sold across the province.

In September Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Michael McBride revealed that the impact of obesity causes around 450 deaths every year and reduces life expectancy by up to nine years.

And yesterday the Assembly health committee warned that up to 60% of men and half of women could be seriously overweight leading the already overstretched health budget to breaking point.

Chair of the committee Jim Wells said: “One of the points that has been raised in the debate is the fact that this generation could have a shorter life span than the previous generation because of obesity and that would be the first time this has happened.

“We are quite literally eating ourselves to death. This is a ticking timebomb and action must be taken urgently to address this issue. The health service will collapse under the strain if action is not taken.”

The health committee has produced a report into obesity and presented its findings to the Executive yesterday.

Mr Wells said he was disappointed by the reaction of the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey to the recommendations being made.

“While he said he agreed with us I did not get the sense anything is going to be done,” said the DUP MLA.

“There is a real sense that this issue is not being approached with the same sense of urgency we are calling for. For example, in Northern Ireland £800,000 has been set aside to tackle obesity over the next financial year while Scotland has allocated millions of pounds.

Obesity places strain on resources, says Health Committee Deputy Chairperson, Michelle O'Neill and Chairperson, Jim Wells

“We would like to see ring-fenced funding put in place. There are a number of other things we want to be put in place. It used to be compulsory for pupils to take part in two hours of PE lessons but that ended. We would like to see it made compulsory again.

“We also want the traffic light system which very clearly shows fat, salt and sugar content on the front of food labels so they are easy to understand. It would also be helpful if fast food outlets included similar information.”

The British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland has welcomed the publication of the report from the health committee.

Jayne Murray, public affairs and communications manager, said: “We are also encouraged to see backing for a number of our policies including a single, consistent food labelling scheme using the traffic light system, as well as their call for the Minister of Health to work with colleagues across the UK to ban advertising of food and drink products that are high in salt, sugar and fat before the 9pm watershed.”

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