Ireland is set to become the first country in the world to restrict unhealthy food sponsorships aimed at children attending primary school, once a newly developed code of practice is introduced.
The code, developed jointly by the Department of Health, the HSE, food companies and advertisers, has the objective of reducing people's exposure to the marketing of food and drink that is high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).
Three out of five Irish adults, and one in four children, are overweight or obese. As the code acknowledges, obesity levels are rising at an alarming rate and Ireland is on course to become the most obese in Europe by 2030.
An action plan last year committed to 60 different actions to tackle rising obesity, of which the introduction of restrictions on food-related advertising and sponsorship is one.
Although the problem is complex, the food sector plays a crucial role in relation to healthy weight. The aim is to change from the current “obesogenic” environment, where unhealthy foods are everywhere, to one that facilitates the consumption of healthier food and drink.
The new rules aim to limit the influence of marketing and advertising in steering people, and particularly children, towards unhealthy food choices.
While the code is voluntary, it will be monitored by a body designated by the Minister for Health. A public register of companies signing up to the code will be kept and a complaints procedure developed.
The code covers online, outdoor, print and cinema marketing, as well as commercial sponsorship and retail product placement.
In broadcasting, where Ireland was the first country to ban celebrity endorsement of unhealthy foods, a separate code applies. Regulators are hoping to introduce a 9pm watershed for the advertising of such foods on television and radio.
As a general rule, the code says locations used by children, such as schools, creches and playgrounds, shall be free from all forms of marketing for unhealthy foods.
HFSS food and drink should not be marketed on children’s media, it says. Where a media platform is not specifically targeted at children, food companies should act “with a sense of responsibility”.
Marketing in adult media, but which is aimed at children, shall not include the use of “licensed characters” or celebrities popular with children to promote unhealthy food. Promotions and competitions for HFSS food are also banned.
Whether or not a food or drink is classified as HFSS is based on a technique of nutritional profiling developed in the UK. This model uses a scoring system, with points allocated based on the nutrient content of 100g of a food or drink.