Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs

Tackling Childhood Obesity: Discussion

9:30 am

Mr. Chris Macey:

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak today on what we regard as the greatest single threat to the health of this generation of children and young people. State-funded research estimates that 85,000 of today's children on the island of Ireland will die prematurely due to overweight and obesity. Sadly, we are seeing evidence that something catastrophic is already happening; children as young as eight years old are presenting with high blood pressure and young people are presenting with heart disease, which used to only be seen in middle age. In disadvantaged areas we are also witnessing a new phenomenon of children who are simultaneously obese and malnourished. Consequently, our timeframe for action is rapidly receding.

There have been welcome recent developments such as the impending sugary drinks tax but we must do much more to turn the tide. This is a hugely complex area and we cannot hope to raise all of our issues and proposed actions in the time allotted today. This statement will address the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children, which the evidence shows is a key driver of our obesity crisis.

The Irish Heart Foundation is an international leader in this area. In 2016 we published Europe's first ever research on the tactics used by junk food marketers to target children online. This research was endorsed by the World Health Organization, whose follow-up study has been influential at European Union Commission level. Along with our Stop Targeting Kids campaign our research has impacted as far away as Canada where a Bill to ban unhealthy food marketing to children is now before its Parliament.

If a small consultancy company that virtually nobody has heard of potentially influenced the course of a US presidential election using data harvested via Facebook, imagine the extent to which junk food marketers can use digital platforms to manipulate children. Cambridge Analytica attempted to persuade adult voters to exercise their franchise in a particular way over a short timeframe. Junk food marketing involves the world's best marketing brains in the biggest agencies relentlessly targeting children, who we know are way more susceptible to advertising, every single day.

When we published our groundbreaking research we had not heard of Cambridge Analytica or pyschographic micro-targeting. Junk food marketers have been doing this for years to bombard children with clever marketing messages that distort their food choices. It is important to state that the causal link between unhealthy food marketing and childhood obesity has been proved conclusively. This is why restrictions on broadcast advertising were introduced in Ireland five years ago. This did not, however, prompt a more responsible approach from marketers, just an explosion in unregulated digital marketing that is more personalised and effective, and therefore potentially more damaging. As a result, junk food brands have achieved a wholly inappropriate proximity to children, pestering them relentlessly in school, at home and even in their bedrooms through their smart phones. It is called "brand in the hand" and it gives marketers constant access to children.

Marketers have huge amounts of individuals' information, extracted from children through digital platforms such as Facebook: who they are, where they live, where they go, who their friends are, their hobbies, their heroes, favourite foods etc. The marketers use this information to connect with children on a one-to-one basis, employing to so-called three "Es", which are powerful engagement, emotional and entertainment-based tactics. There is strong emphasis on fun and humour and on using sports stars, celebrities, festivals, special days and competitions. The effect is that children associate positive emotions and excitement with junk brands and they often do not realise they are being advertised at. Brands get on to the young people's newsfeeds and interact like real friends, effectively becoming part of children's social lives. The brands even get children to become marketers for them by tagging friends in to advertisements and by posting messages. All of this happens behind parents' backs on social media and much of the pester power they are subjected to is generated by junk brands pestering children.

The argument is often put that people can ignore advertising, but from tobacco marketing in the past to junk marketing and the targeting of voters, which is now under the spotlight, there is a longstanding pattern of people being persuaded to act against their own interests. This is not the exercise of free choice; it is manipulation that usurps free choice. I reiterate that children are far more susceptible.

The foods most commonly marketed to children are sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks, sweet or savoury snacks and fast foods that are advertised as everyday products when in a healthy diet they should be consumed rarely and in small quantities. This has turned the food pyramid on its head and has distorted the public perception of what a normal diet is.

Sadly, the State's response has been feeble, putting its faith in a voluntary code in an industry whose major players have consistently shown they will do as little as they can get away with. In fairness, their remit is not the protection of public health; it is to maximise shareholder wealth and in the hard-bitten boardrooms of the multinational processed food industry this is what executives are judged on. These companies, therefore, have no role in the solution. The damaging impact of overselling their products has created a market failure that the State must resolve.

From banking to gambling and from tobacco to environmental protection, across the planet voluntary codes do not work. A voluntary industry advertising industry code was in place throughout the online explosion of unhealthy food marketing to children here. Companies adopting the code are not obliged to abide by their commitments while firms acting responsibly are put at a competitive disadvantage that can only be remedied by the level legal playing field of regulation.

Junk food marketing is fuelling obesity, obesity is damaging children and the State is failing to protect children's health. The only remedy is an outright ban on unhealthy food marketing to under-16s.

In this country, we are used to looking back at failures of previous generations in meeting their duty of care to children. In 30 years' time we will all be in the dock, health charities as well as policy makers. How we act now to minimise the toll of preventable chronic disease and premature death facing so many of our children will determine the judgment passed upon us.