Irish children being ‘manipulated’ by marketing of junk food

Irish Heart Foundation calls for ban on junk food marketing to children under 16 years

“In terms of the increase of fast-food outlets, Ireland came second to the United States in a list of 26 developed countries.” Photograph: Getty images

The State is failing to protect Irish children's health by leaving them open to "manipulation" by online advertising from junk food and fizzy drink marketing companies, the Irish Heart Foundation has warned.

The foundation is calling for a blanket ban on junk food marketing to children under 16 years, and has warned that controversial targets used by Cambridge Analytics to target voters in the US presidential election were also being used by marketing groups on unsuspecting children.

Speaking before the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, the group's head of advocacy Chris Macey warned that companies marketing junk food were relentlessly targeting children through online platforms.

“Junk brands have achieved a wholly inappropriate proximity to children – pestering them relentlessly in school, at home, even in their bedrooms through their smart phones. It’s called the ‘brand in the hand’ and gives marketers constant access to children.


“Junk food marketing involves the world’s best marketing brains relentlessly targeting children every single day. The State must resolve this. We know voluntary codes don’t work. The State’s response has been feeble.”

Mr Macey also highlighted the recent phenomenon of children from disadvantaged areas becoming simultaneously overweight and malnourished, and warned that 85,000 of today’s Irish children would die prematurely due to being overweight or obese.

Vulnerable families

Prof John Sharry from the Parents Plus charity said nutrition programmes and specialist services were not reaching vulnerable families, and the State must engage at a community level to ensure parents provided their children with a healthy, nutritional diet. He added that stigma and shame often prevented families from seeking help.

“When someone is overweight it’s very stigmatised. They need to be told that it’s not their fault; that it’s the environment they’ve been brought up in.”

Responding to a question from Senator Joan Freeman on whether efforts have been made to target pregnant women and new mothers in promoting healthy eating among children, Prof Sharry agreed that early intervention was vital in the battle against obesity. “It’s about prevention; you need to get in their early. Once poor eating habits are established it’s very hard to stop that trajectory.”

‘No-fry zones’

Asked to comment on the implementation of “no-fry zones” around schools, Mr Macey said the sale of fast-food near school gates was exacerbating obesity among young people.

"70 per cent of our schools have a fast-food outlet within a kilometre of their gates, and 30 per cent have at least five within a kilometre. In terms of the increase of fast-food outlets, Ireland came second to the United States in a list of 26 developed countries. We have to deal with this."

Janis Morrissey from the Irish Heart Foundation told the committee that many schools continued to offer students hot snacks like chicken fillet rolls, chips and pizzas rather than healthy options in their canteens.

She also warned of the growing drop-off rate in PE classes, particularly among teenage girls.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast