It is time to put the health of Irish children ahead of the profits of the global food industry

We need to protect our children from junk food – which leads to obesity, heart attacks and diabetes – and there is no excuse for any further delay. Dr. Catherine Conlon

IIt’s been five years since the launch of the voluntary agreement between the government and the food industry to limit children’s exposure to junk food promotion. Five years later, the agreement has not been implemented. The voluntary agreement led to obfuscation and delay. (Now there is a surprise! – Mr. Dr).

The Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) has developed the Stop Child Targeting campaign to protect children from being targeted by junk food marketing. The campaign calls for banning all online fast food marketing, for extending TV watersheds to 9 p.m., removing loopholes that mean 4-year-olds see more than 1,000 fast food ads a year on TV, and banning fast food ads in the state. Owned transportation, buildings and other facilities, such as bus stations.

Marketing of junk food to children is everywhere – fueling an obesity crisis that is causing soaring levels of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Junk food advertising on TV is prohibited before 6pm – the campaign is calling for it to be extended to 9pm to protect young children from overexposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods.

A recent study in the UK’s National Child Measurement Program found that obesity increased by more than 20 per cent in 10-11-year-olds between 2020 and 2021, exacerbated by lockdown conditions that led to less physical activity, more time spent on social media, with increased exposure to fast food marketing online.

The IHF stated that it is not just a problem on the Internet. Wherever children are – they are confronted by junk food advertisements – on television, on billboards, on buses, in stores, supermarkets, sports stadiums and cinemas, by sponsoring children’s events, on the jerseys of their sports heroes and through promotion by their music idols. no escape.

“One in 20 of today’s babies will die prematurely from overweight and obesity,” said Chris Massey, director of advocacy for the International Hospital Federation. Doctors notice high blood pressure in children up to the age of six. If we don’t act now, future generations will suffer.

“Internet marketing is manipulating their food choices and fueling an obesity crisis that threatens their health.”

Bans on advertisements for foods high in fat, salt and sugar before 9pm were due to come into effect in the UK in January this year, as well as a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ deals at fast food. It was delayed by a year in May 2022 by the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Implementation has now been further delayed by Rishi Sunak, until 2025, by which time the new Parliament will likely convene after the next general election.

“Delaying restrictions on fast food advertising is a shocking move by the government with no plausible justification for doing so, other than offering a lame excuse that companies need more time to prepare and reformulate,” said Catherine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance.

This is at a time when cases of type 2 diabetes in children and young adults are rising faster in Britain than anywhere else in the world, according to a study in BMJ in 2022.

“Delaying action will disproportionately affect low-income families as they have less access to healthy food and are targeted with a higher volume of advertising for unhealthy foods,” said Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK.

The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) is a coalition of over 40 health organizations in the UK who have joined together to advocate for policies to improve population health and tackle obesity. Their three priorities include:

  • strong fiscal measures to incentivize the reformulation of unhealthy foods and drinks;
  • restrict promotional tactics used to encourage excessive consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages including restrictions on multiple purchases and location-based promotions; And
  • To phase out the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products, including 9pm watershed advertising on television and to ban paid online advertising.

The OHA Policy Summary Report (2020) outlines the strong and growing evidence linking fast food marketing to childhood overweight and obesity, as well as the millions food companies spend each year on a range of digital marketing techniques to keep fast food in the spotlight. Children’s exposure to this advertising has been determined on a range of digital devices and platforms including websites, social media, games and apps.

Given the multiple formats, complexity, and rapidly changing nature of the digital marketing environment—along with issues with regulating this environment—the OHA states that ending all digital marketing would be the most effective way to protect children, and also benefit adults. ‘ health.

The OHA Summary Report provides evidence showing that there is a clear link between food advertising and the food that children buy. Advertising affects how much children eat and leads parents to buy unhealthy products. The OHA states that advertising also influences dietary standards, leading to population-level shifts in preferences for certain food groups, and also influences the cultural values ​​that underpin eating behaviours.

Evidence suggests a link between the time young people spend online and what they eat.

Children who use the Internet for more than three hours a day are almost three times more likely to be bullied by their parents for junk food, four times more likely to buy junk food, and eat three times less fruits and vegetables.

Young people in the UK report being targeted by junk food marketing, which they see as ubiquitous. They feel it is targeting them by using spaces associated with a younger audience, such as social media. And through attractive content. Research shows that teens are more likely to post about unhealthy foods on social media, have greater recognition of these brands, and spend more time viewing content that includes unhealthy food.

Similar results were found in Ireland. An IHF survey (2022) found that nearly a third of teens (32 percent) would support banning junk food advertising to those under the age of 18, to reduce junk food habits among teens.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognizes and enshrines children as rights holders, and governments are responsible for this. In practice, this means putting the best interest of the children first, with governments acting as duty-bearers. In this context, the Irish government has a duty to protect children from the harms of junk food marketing.

In June 2020 the newly elected government committed to tackle obesity in Ireland through the Public Health (Obesity) Act including restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.

Ireland has led the way globally by introducing legislation on indoor smoking, providing a model for other countries to do the same. Now, there is an opportunity to provide the same global leadership with legislation to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food and beverage products.

Legislation providing a commitment to phase out marketing, restrict promotions and fiscal measures to stimulate reformulation of unhealthy foods and drinks into the Irish market would be a giant step towards putting children’s health above the needs of a profit-driven world. food market.

Dr. Catherine Conlon He is a Cork-based GP, and former Director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood.