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Diarmaid Ferriter: Halloween’s sugar mountain part of a relentless cycle

The Irish Heart Foundation puts it simply: ‘Stop targeting children’

The youngest tipped over the pillowcase. Time to count the bounty. Here we go: 45 chocolate bars, 10 packets of chocolate buttons, 17 packets of jellies, 15 small boxes – a mixture of Smarties, M&Ms and Maltesers – six lollipops, four packets of crisps and numerous stray, chewy sweets. An avalanche of treats, and she didn’t perform a trick at any of the doors she called to.

In the middle of the sugar mountain there were six nuts and one shiny apple. She looked on these, not with disgust, but with bemusement; they were clearly aliens. Why on earth, her cute face seemed to suggest, would these have been flung into the mix?

The scale and height of the Halloween sugar mountain is awesome and disgusting. “Ah, sure it’s only one night,” one grandmother says, a pre-emptive riposte to my imminent expression of disapproval.

But it is not just one night; it is part of a relentless cycle. In the run up to Halloween the supermarket chains were outdoing each other to diminish their individual sugar mountains with “special” offers for the sweet multipacks: three for €5 became three for €3, became five for €5. A steal!


And you’d have to be buying plenty of them because the size of the receptacles presented by the small hands on doorsteps seems to have quadrupled in recent years.

The kids are bigger too, of course. I recently listened to Prof Donal O'Shea, this year appointed the HSE's clinical lead for obesity, give a talk to secondary school students on the food challenges they face. Cleverly he talked about Augustus Gloop, the character from Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Gloop the glutton

When the film version was broadcast in 1971 under the title Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Gloop the glutton was played by Michael Bollner. Gloop, who exclaims "this stuff is fabulous…gosh, I need a bucket to drink it properly!" memorably falls into a chocolate river to be sucked up a pipe to the fudge room.

Bollner, however, was positively svelte compared to the Gloop in Tim Burton’s film version in 2005; the actor playing him in that adaptation, Philip Wiegratz, had to get a fat suit to reflect the scale of what constituted obese in the early 21st century.

Never before have we had more advice on balanced diets, but never before have those pedalling junk had such vast empires

I don’t envy O’Shea his task given the extent to which we are surrounded by sugar, and the imposition of a tax on certain soft drinks is hardly likely to make much impact given the placing and marketing of such a variety of cheap confectionary.

Parents trying to preach and instil moderate habits in the consumption of sugar are surrounded by mixed signals; never before have we had more information and advice on balanced diets, but never before have those pedalling junk had such vast empires and the attendant strategies to colonise.

Diabetes centre

O’Shea is more aware of this than most, and has often highlighted the deep ironies that surround him and his task, pointing at one stage to the well stocked vending machine, bursting with crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks, straight across from the entrance to St Vincent’s Hospital’s diabetes centre.

He has also observed children as young as five “turning on their genes for diabetes and heart disease”.

Last year saw the publication of Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan by the Department of Health, with the focus on prevention for the alarming reason that one in four primary school children in Ireland are obese or overweight.

It states: “Preventing children from becoming overweight must form the cornerstone of prevention efforts if long-term sustainable change in Ireland’s population obesity profile is to be achieved.”

One of the aims is to “secure appropriate support from the commercial sector to play its part in obesity prevention”.

There is mention of targets, codes of practice and the need to “develop proposals on the scope of corporate responsibility”, and to consider maximum portion sizes on a “voluntary basis initially”. This is insufficient in a country where the number of people who are obese or overweight has doubled in the last two decades.

Unhealthy food

Research in the Irish Journal of Psychology last year concluded "children in Ireland still watch an average of more than 1,000 ads for unhealthy food and drinks annually on television alone".

The Irish Heart Foundation puts it simply: “Stop targeting children.”

It also states that to expect companies that promote food high in sugar, fat and salt “to self-regulate or to implement health-promoting measures beyond the bare minimum of what they can get away with” is naïve, and ignores their singular aim of maximising profits.

Now that the Halloween break is over, the Christmas selection boxes are already stacked high. Two for €5 will become three for €5, will become five for €5.

There’s a mountain of them to shift to generate more girth, rotten teeth and tension during holidays.