It’s hard right now to imagine future generations looking back on the State’s response to our childhood obesity crisis as anything less than a catastrophic dereliction of duty.
Recent State-funded research estimates that 85,000 of today’s children on the island of Ireland will die prematurely due to overweight and obesity – more than twice the entire Irish death toll in the first World War.
Yes, there has been significant progress, such as the impending introduction of sugar-sweetened drinks tax. But this is nowhere near enough to change the future and alter our current course towards perhaps the most fatal failure of political will, and of our children, in the history of the State.
This shouldn’t be taken as an attack on the Department of Health or the Health Service Executive, where those leading the fight against obesity care as passionately as anyone can about turning the tide. The deficiency of the policy response to date is largely down to a broader failure of government in areas including education, the environment, communications where responsibility for vital elements of health policy is devolved, along with other powerful areas of government where vested interests can find champions to protect them.
A cursory look at the latest litany of dubious marketing tactics includes competitions for children to get their faces on to packets of a well-known crisp brand
The Government’s latest initiative to tackle a big-ticket driver of obesity – a code of practice to restrict non-broadcast junk food marketing – smacks of a policy approach more acceptable outside than within the walls of the Department of Health. Because it’s a plan more likely to safeguard the multinational processed food industry from the requirements of public health than protecting the public’s health from the excesses of junk-food marketing.
The problem is it’s a voluntary code. The department knows well these just don’t work, not least from its own regulatory impact analysis of the Alcohol Bill, a succession of failed UK codes and the current Irish advertising industry standards which have not diminished the relentless online targeting of children. A cursory look at the latest litany of dubious marketing tactics includes competitions for children to get their faces on to packets of a well-known crisp brand and another to win your height in pizza to mark National Pizza Day.
Companies signing up to the code won’t be obliged to abide by their commitments, while firms acting responsibly will be put at a major competitive disadvantage by those which continue to act as before. This can be remedied only through the legal level playing field of regulation.
Compliance will be monitored, but the only sanction for breaching the code is “naming and shaming” that rarely works according to the World Health Organisation, which suggests a tougher regulatory approach with monetary penalties similar to European Union data-protection fines of up to 4 per cent of a company’s global annual turnover.
But even if voluntary codes worked, consider what this one is asking the industry to do. Its stated purpose is to influence healthy eating patterns by reducing exposure to junk marketing. This means substantially lower consumption and therefore, greatly reduced profits.
In other words, success depends on getting the hard-bitten boardrooms of the multinational junk brands to ditch the creed of maximising shareholder wealth and effectively become a new breed of corporate entity – part-profit and part-public health promoter. Good luck with that!
That’s the equation from the public health perspective. For industry it’s very different. It’s good business to participate in the code, to shape health policy it’s in their interests to frustrate. Junk-food firms and marketers are in the business of being persuasive, so while working on the inside to do as little as they can get away with, they can throw their PR machines into creating the facade of responsible conduct and enthusiastic participation.
The charade of implementing a voluntary code that cannot work will not just prevent the progress we need – it's likely to delay effective action by years
We’ve seen this before. Five years ago, junk brand advertising to children on television was restricted because of its health impact. But instead of accepting its responsibilities, the industry circumvented the regulations so successfully that Irish children still watch more than 1,000 junk brand ads a year on average on television alone.
Meanwhile, their marketers have engineered an explosion in digital marketing that’s more personalised, effective and therefore potentially even more damaging, so children’s exposure to junk brands is greater than ever.
They have no role in the solution – the real remedy is uncompromising mandatory regulation, including an outright ban on all marketing to under-16s. The causal link between junk food marketing to children and childhood obesity has been proved conclusively. And we know that children as young as eight are suffering high blood pressure, while young people are showing the early signs of heart disease once seen only in middle age.
The charade of implementing a voluntary code that cannot work will not just prevent the progress we need – it’s likely to delay effective action by years. And every day that passes in the meantime will dim those 85,000 children’s prospects of being saved from lives dominated by chronic disease and premature death because policymakers didn’t act and we didn’t make them.
Chris Macey is head of advocacy at the Irish Heart Foundation