Failure to confront food and alcohol lobby ‘costing thousands of lives’

A failure to take on powerful food and alcohol industries is costing thousands of lives in Ireland every year, a Dáil committee was told today.

Around 35,000 people die each year in Ireland, three-quarters as a result of chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and respiratory ailments.

But the toll could be greatly reduced if the Government prioritises the prevention of chronic disease and ignores “vested interests” which oppose progressive health strategies, the Health Promotion Alliance Ireland (HPAI), told the Dáil’s health committee.

It also pointed to recent research showing that just four industries – tobacco, unhealthy foods, fossil fuels and alcohol – are responsible for at least a third of deaths globally per year.

Among the measures it is calling for is a curb on junk food adverts targeting children.

The umbrella group was represented by Janis Morrissey, the Director of Health Promotion, Irish Heart Foundation, Dr Sheila Gilheany, CEO, Alcohol Action Ireland, and Dr Liz O’Sullivan, Lecturer in Nutrition, TU Dublin. 

The Government, they said, must show a similar determination which led to the workplace smoking ban, to tackle the causes of chronic disease.

“In Ireland, we will shortly mark 20 years since the introduction of that ban,” Ms Morrissey said.

“This ambitious initiative improved everybody’s health and proved the Government’s ability to stand up to the big tobacco lobby.

“Now Government needs to repeat this brave action with other sectors, who all use the same corporate playbook to oppose any progressive health policy.”

Too much focus is placed on awareness campaigns and slogans such as ‘drink responsibly’ to encourage individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles, Ms Morrissey said.

But with figures showing the alcohol industry in Ireland spent €116 million on advertising in 2021, such campaigns are “simply not enough”.

The HPAI argues that the population in Norway – where there is a complete ban on alcohol advertising – drinks 37% less alcohol compared with Ireland. 

On this basis, the Alliance insists one of the solutions to growing waiting lists and trolley queues is ‘staring our legislators in the face’.

“Chronic diseases account for 76% of all deaths annually, 40% of admissions and 75% of bed days,” Ms Morrissey told TDs and Senators.

“These chronic diseases are largely preventable. They are mostly caused by five common risk factors: poor diet, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, smoking and obesity. We know what needs to be done.” 

The HPAI – established last year to advocate for major policy change to promote the primary prevention of chronic disease  – also called for a review of the Healthy Ireland strategy, due to end in 2025, so that future policies address the structural drivers of chronic disease.

“The Healthy Ireland framework was a whole of Government plan with a goal of addressing the wider determinants of health, but this vision has not been realised,” Ms Morrissey said.

“Prevention does not just mean campaigns or early detection of disease. 

“It also means stopping these preventable diseases developing in the first place. 

“To address the causes of chronic disease, a major shift to primary prevention is required.”

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