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Disappointment at non-stick ‘no-fry zones’

10 Jun 2016

Dara Gantly is disappointed that his native county has backed down on the fight against childhood obesity


As someone who has returned to live and start a family in Wicklow, the county where I grew up, I have a certain pride in its reputation as the Garden of Ireland and never tire of its stunning natural beauty. Unfortunately, it can fall short when it comes to the usual sporting bragging rights, but then what other county can claim an Irish, European, World and Olympic champion over the past decade?

However, it was with some regret that I learned Wicklow County Council was not going to lead the way on the obesity fight by imposing a blanket ban on fast-food outlets opening within a certain radius of schools. While this so-called ‘no-fry zone’ within 400m of schools, parks or playgrounds was written into the Council’s draft development plan last November, it now appears its CEO wants to remove the specified distance ban and instead merely give “careful consideration” to the location of such restaurants in the vicinity of either schools or parks and to decide on their location on a case-by-case basis.

As background, this is the same Council that gave planning permission for a fast-food outlet only 30 metres from a new campus of three schools catering for 1,800 students in Greystones. This, as you would expect, promoted a public outcry, legal challenges and an ultimate ‘rethink’ by the site’s owners, one of the large supermarkets.

Elsewhere in this week’s paper (page 4), we report that more than €1.33 million has been spent on the Government’s health and well-being framework, Healthy Ireland, since its launch in March 2013. HI has made improving and protecting health a responsibility for all government departments, local authorities and all sectors of society, and thus places a responsibility on all planning authorities to promote healthy communities. Perhaps the new Wicklow Development Plan should be a test case and be used to test the mettle of Healthy Ireland. If it fails on this ‘health check’, I would question spending another euro on its implementation.

So, what is the evidence base for all this? Well, in its submission on the Wicklow County Development Plan, the Irish Heart Foundation welcomed the inclusion of a no-fry zone but proposed the exclusion zone should be widened to 1km. It also recommended that maps showing the zones around each school be provided with the final Development Plan.

Pic: Getty Images

It reiterated the shocking statistic that there has been a two-to-fourfold increase in obesity among Irish children aged eight to 12 years since 1990. The Growing Up in Ireland study also shows that social inequalities increase the risk of overweight and obesity from an early age. At nine years of age, children from disadvantaged areas are much more likely to be obese.

The IHF referenced the US study in the American Journal of Public Health (2009 Mar;99(3), 505-10) that clearly linked over-concentration of and/or proximity to fast-food outlets and obesity, as well as research closer to home that showed 75 per cent of Irish schools have at least one and almost 30 per cent have at least five fast-food outlets within 1km (Health Education, Vol 115, Iss 2, 152-170).

The IHF believes it is inappropriate to continue to address the issue of new fast food outlets beside schools on a case-by-case basis at local level, requiring parents or schools to organise to appeal planning applications, as happened in Greystones. It believes a co-ordinated, national approach to protecting the health of children and young people across the country is now required.

The RCPI Policy Group on Obesity also made a submission to Wicklow County Council earlier this year, in which it stressed that planning had a key role to play in supporting health in our communities, and ensuring the physical and built environment encouraged people to be physically active and to make healthy food choices.

Commenting on its submission, Prof Donal O’Shea, Co-Chair of the Policy Group, said Wicklow Council could lead the way on this and pointed out that these were exactly the type of infrastructural changes that Oklahoma City made when going from being “the fattest city in the US to one of the fittest cities as it is now”.

Figures from the WHO show that Ireland is seeing alarming rates of obesity and is poised to become the ‘fat man’ of Europe. It would seem logical that protecting our children from those high fat, high sugar foods and encouraging healthy, accessible foods would be a very good place to start in terms of addressing this.

Many councils across the UK have moved on this already, and Public Health England has published a very readable briefing (‘Obesity and the environment: regulating the growth of fast food outlets, 2013), detailing what the various local authorities there have done. And for those who might dispute the link, I give you the case of a school in Perth, Australia which recently had to erect an AUD$83,000 (€54,500) metal fence to stop children getting out to buy junk food from across the street.

Are we to be forced to build similar walls to protect our children? And surely we should not need an Irish Jamie Oliver-type campaigner to spell out just how crazy this policy is? The Government, and its Healthy Ireland strategy, should be enough. But we need to see its teeth.

Dara Gantly

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Irish Medical Times: Opinion