Ireland is facing “losing a generation of children” to obesity-related disease, according to the Irish Heart Foundation.
The stark warning comes as a new study shows three out of every four people in Ireland want celebrities banned from endorsing unhealthy food and drinks.
The charity says children as young as eight are presenting with high blood pressure and young people are showing early signs of heart disease usually seen in middle-aged men.
Helena O’Donnell, childhood obesity campaign manager at the Irish Heart Foundation, warned that unless “drastic action” is taken, 85,000 of this generation of children will die prematurely due to being overweight – almost the entire population of Co Laois.
“More children will go on to suffer heart disease and stroke in the future,” Ms O’Donnell said.
“20% of children live with overweight or obesity and what we have noticed is that inequality remains quite strong, with rates in disadvantaged areas reaching one in four (25%).”
In 1975, childhood obesity affected just 1% of children in Ireland, but by 2016, 30% of girls and 31% of boys were overweight, with 9% of girls and 10% of boys living with obesity.
A study by Ipsos MRBI for the Irish Heart Foundation has found that 76% back a ban on celebrities promoting junk food.
Some 85% of people support a ban on unhealthy food and drink brands’ advertisements within games and apps played by children under 16.
The Irish Heart Foundation says that a partial ban on broadcast advertising to children introduced in 2013 has sparked an upsurge in unregulated digital marketing.
Ms O’Donnell said: “Brands have now achieved an inappropriate proximity to children online, engaging relentlessly in school, at home and even in their bedrooms, mostly through smartphones.
The study found a total of 76% of people are also in favour of prohibiting children’s toys being sold alongside such foods or confectionary.
And 75% would support an end to price promotions encouraging larger meal sizes, with 24% opposed.
Rolling lockdowns implemented during the coronavirus pandemic also appear to have fuelled the obesity crisis.
Separate ESRI research last month showed children, especially girls, were eating more junk food during restrictions.
Cookbook author Susan Jane White, a founder of the Irish Heart Foundation’s parent campaigner group, described the State’s response to the concerns as “feeble”, claiming it put its faith in preventing junk food marketing in a voluntary code.
She said: “We want to empower parents to challenge the narrative that they are the ones at fault for childhood obesity and I encourage everyone to sign a petition to protect our children’s health.”
“We are specifically calling for the Government to put mandatory restrictions and penalties on junk food companies who market to kids online and on broadcast media.”
An Irish Heart Foundation petition calling on the Government to implement mandatory restrictions on marketing junk food to children has gathered 7,500 signatures so far.