State ‘not guarding kids from junk food adverts’

The Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) has hit out at the State over what it describes as its “failure to protect children from online junk food marketing”.

The criticism comes almost a year to the day since the Department of Health launched a voluntary code on advertising, an effort the IHF said represents “weak regulation that was doomed to failure” because companies are not obliged to sign up and face no penalties for non-compliance.

IHF head of advocacy Chris Macey said inaction in tackling the advertising of unhealthy foods “represented a dereliction of duty that children would pay for heavily through lives dominated by chronic disease, long-term ill health, and ultimately premature death”.

The ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ report, published by the Department of Children, has found that one in four school children is overweight or obese here.

“The Department of Health is well aware that junk food marketing is a key driver of our obesity crisis and State-funded research estimates that it will cause the premature deaths of 85,000 of this generation of children on the island,” said Mr Macey.

Yet nothing has been done to safeguard children from marketers since minister of state Catherine Byrne launched the non-broadcast media code on Valentine’s Day last year — and that vacuum stretches back almost three and a half years to when work on the code began.

Stop Targeting Kids, an IHF campaign, has delivered a file detailing complaints against specific unhealthy food and beverage ads to the Department of Health for Ms Byrne’s attention.

“We know that junk food marketing is fuelling obesity and that obesity is damaging children’s health. So, it’s deeply disappointing that the department hasn’t shown more urgency around this threat to our children’s health,” said Mr Macey.

“Why on earth would they launch a code of conduct without being ready to implement it, except perhaps as a publicity stunt?”

Mr Macey said the past year has seen revelations such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has given greater clarity to the type of profiling and microtargeting tactics being used by social media platforms and those who advertise through these media.

“There is a partial ban on broadcast advertising, but no urgency at all to tackle the free-for-all on digital media where advertising is more personalised, effective, and therefore potentially more damaging,” he said. “This is largely being carried out behind parents’ backs on children’s smartphones, what marketers call the ‘brand in the hand’, giving them access to children all day long.

“The Irish Heart Foundation believes that there is no justification for junk marketers to have access to children given that their aim is to encourage them to over-consume and thereby to compromise their health.

“Instead of working with vested interests to reduce children’s exposure to junk marketing through a code developed with the involvement of the processed food industry, the Department of Health and Government as a whole should be working to eliminate this threat to our children’s wellbeing.”

Mr Macey called on the Department of Health to support World Health Organisation suggestions of penalties of up to 4% of global turnover for companies in breach of mandatory regulations on advertising.

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