Department of Health delays in finalising mechanisms for codes of practice governing the marketing of junk food to children has meant companies cannot sign up to the voluntary regulations, critics have said.
And health charity the Irish Heart Foundation has branded the delays “disgraceful”.
The codes of practice restrict the marketing and sponsorship of food and non-alcoholic drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) in non-broadcast media including digital and print.
Finalised last February, they are a core element of the Government’s 2016 action plan on Ireland’s obesity crisis.
When launching them, the department said it was “essential” Ireland changes its culture to “one that facilitates consumption of healthier food and drink”.
The document itself notes that Irish men now have the fourth highest prevalence of obesity in the EU and women the seventh. One in four children is overweight or obese.
"It's disgraceful that we haven't heard who the monitoring body [of the code] is actually going to be or how companies or organisations are supposed to sign up to this," said Kathryn Reilly, policy manager at the Irish Heart Foundation.
“What we are increasingly seeing is that children are being exposed to junk food marketing in digital media,” Ms Reilly said. “It’s the wallpaper in their lives. It’s omnipresent.”
A heart foundation report Who’s Feeding the Kids Online? in 2016 noted that marketers are using sophisticated analytics to target children, as opposed to the “scattergun” effect of television ads. Statutory regulations already prohibit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children in broadcast media.
Documents obtained by the foundation show how the food and drink lobby had fought marketing restrictions on “wraparounds” – advertising on vehicles such as buses – and so-called “takeovers”, which dominate website pages.
“We need to jump straight into statutory regulation. Voluntary regulation has been proven not to work. We have seen that across a lot of industries,” said Ms Reilly.
The Department of Health confirmed no mechanism by which companies could sign up to the code, or put in place oversight, has yet been established.
“We expect to have this well advanced over the next quarter of 2018,” it said.
However, for its critics, the issue of timing may be moot. The nature and approach of the oversight is, for many, lacking in strength.
"Even if the Government had fairly rapidly implemented a process by which companies could sign up to this, I would still be concerned that it's a completely ineffective way to reduce the amount of unhealthy food and drinks that the population are consuming and have access to," said Dr Francis Finucane, consultant endocrinologist at Galway University Hospital.
“It gives the impression that something is being done when in fact nothing meaningful is being done.”
Norah Campbell, assistant professor in marketing at Trinity College Dublin, said a link between food marketing and over-consumption has been proven.
“Junk food brands are over the moon. This happened because, in designing the codes, 50 per cent of the ‘stakeholders’ came from the food industry: where are the consumers, the educators, the parents, the people who actually live and work with children in all this?”
Food Drink Ireland said its members are committed to responsible marketing and welcomed the formation of the code. It said the working group behind it was representative of Government departments, state agencies and industry.
Its director Paul Kelly said they had told the Department on two occasions that a "technical guidance document" for those in advertising and media was required to "bring the voluntary codes of practice to life".