Irish optimism on health belies facts

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From The Irish Times

PAUL CULLEN, Health Correspondent

We are the healthiest people in Europe  – according to ourselves. We eat more greens than anyone else and plenty of fruit, while our death rates from all causes are falling faster than anywhere else.

That ’s the good news from the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ’s (OECD) annual comparison of Europe ’s health systems, published yesterday.

However, the same report reveals plenty of negatives about Irish health. Eight years after we led the way internationally by banning smoking in public places, we are a developed world leader in smoking.

Alcohol consumption has gone up by a quarter in three decades. Our adults rank third for obesity and our children are fourth. The incidence of cancer was high at the time of measurement four years ago.

Great gains  

The Health at a Glance 2012 report highlights the great gains that have been made in Ireland and other European countries over recent decades, but expresses concern that financial cutbacks may reverse this progress.

According to the report, the rate of smoking in Ireland is the third-highest in Europe. Some 29 per cent of Irish people smoke, a rate bettered only by Bulgaria (29.2 per cent) and Greece (31.9 per cent).

There has been a 12 per cent fall in Irish smoking rates over the past decade, but the rate of decline in other countries has been greater.

In many southern and eastern European countries, the level of smoking among men is greater than in Ireland but overall figures are lower because so few women smoke.

Alcohol consumption grew by one-quarter in the past decades, one of the biggest increases recorded in the report. The average Irish person consumed 11.9 litres of alcohol in 2010, well above the international average.

Some 23 per cent of Irish men and 24 per cent of women are obese, putting us third in the OECD ranking behind Hungary and the UK.

Yet the Irish top the rankings for one indicator of a healthy diet, eating vegetables  – more than 95 per cent of us say we get our greens daily  – and we score well above average for eating fruit every day.

Optimistic on health  

The Irish are the healthiest people in Europe, according to ourselves. Some 83 per cent of us say our health is good or very good, ahead of the sober Swiss and clean-living Swedes. At the other end, Latvians take a gloomy view of their health, with less than half saying it is good or very good.

Mortality rates have fallen faster in Ireland than anywhere else in the OECD, according to the report, which describes our 37 per cent reduction since 1995 as remarkable.

It says this has been driven by reductions in cardiovascular and respiratory disease deaths, linked to rising living standards and increased health spending.