Taking child obesity off the menu


A two-year European study aims to assess the effectiveness of the regulations and codes of practice governing the advertising of food and beverages to children in an effort to reduce childhood obesity, writes Michael Kelly

THE IRISH Heart Foundation is taking part in a two-year pan-European project to improve the understanding of influences on children's dietary choices in order to reduce childhood obesity in Europe.

Co-ordinated by the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO), the Polmark Project was launched at the European Commission in Brussels last week and comprises academic, health and consumer groups from across the EU.

The project will be run in 11 European member states, including Ireland, and part of its brief will be to assess the strength and effectiveness of the current regulations and codes of practice governing the advertising of food and beverages to children.

It will also examine whether the obesity crisis among European children justifies tougher measures and, if so, what sort of measures would be most acceptable to the different stakeholders such as children's organisations, teachers' groups, food companies and advertising agencies.

It is understood that the project will identify at least 10 stakeholders in each of the participating member states to include in the review and that the Irish Heart Foundation will coordinate this process in Ireland.

The project will assess the impact on dietary choices of all forms of marketing to children (ie not just TV advertising) such as internet, sponsorship, marketing in schools and product placement.

Childhood obesity is considered a time-bomb issue for the EU's public health system.

More than five million school-age children are estimated to be obese in the European Union and each year nearly half a million more children join that number.

According to the IOSA, nearly a million of these children already show signs of high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and early signs of heart disease.

As they become adults, they will be more susceptible to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer as well as a range of mental health problems.

In Ireland one in four children aged five to 17 years is either overweight or obese and the number classified as obese is doubling every 10 years. The estimated current costs of childhood obesity to the health service are €339 million per annum.

These statistics place us among the worst-performing countries in the EU on the issue, according to Maureen Mulvihill, health promotion manager with the Irish Heart Foundation.

"Sadly, an obese child is more likely to be an obese adult and this will have a huge impact on the levels of heart disease in this country in the future.

"Over the last number of years we have seen dramatic improvements in the level of premature heart disease, but we are very concerned that the increases in childhood obesity will mean that those improvements will be set back and the burden on the healthcare system will be considerable."

The World Health Organisation concluded in 2006 that there is strong scientific evidence to link the commercial promotion of foods and beverages to poor diets in children.

Despite this however, there are huge discrepancies in how EU countries handle the issue and efforts to introduce restrictions on advertising are in their infancy.

Sweden bans all advertising to children under 12 while the British government has banned advertising of high fat and high sugar foods during TV programmes aimed at children up to 16 years old.

Some sectors of the food industry here (and particularly the soft drinks industry) have introduced voluntary codes governing advertising to under-12s and the Children's Advertising Code of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) encourages "responsible" advertising to children.

It also bans the use of celebrities or sports stars to promote food or drink products.

Numerous organisations in the Republic, including the Irish Heart Foundation, the Consumers Association of Ireland and the Children's Rights Alliance, have argued that the current code does not go far enough.

They also point to the fact that the code covers advertising on terrestrial broadcasting only and does not address emerging media such as the internet.

The organisations have called for a ban on "junk food" TV advertising to children before the 9pm watershed and see this as a key solution to the problem of childhood obesity.

A key question is whether the Polmark Project recommendations will lead to pan-European restrictions on advertising to children and how the findings will affect the Broadcasting Bill 2008 which is currently progressing through the Oireachtas.

Citing public health concerns, the relevant text in the Broadcasting Bill gives the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, the option to prohibit the advertising of foods and beverages, particularly those which contain fat, trans fatty acids, salts or sugars.

The chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation, Michael O'Shea, believes the project will be useful in helping to inform the Minister when it comes to considering measures to address advertising of unhealthy foods to children as proposed in the Bill.

The BCI (which will be replaced by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in 2009) has recently completed a statutory review of the advertising code and presented this review to the Minister in October, according to Broadcasting Standards Officer Declan McLoughlin.

A second-stage review aimed at examining the effect of changes to the code will take place in 2009 though the nature and timeframe of this review has yet to be established.

The Polmark Project is expected to take two years - results from the project will be included in the review of the regulatory framework promised in 2010 by the European Commission in its White Paper on Obesity.