Health campaigners in Ireland call for tough laws on digital advertising

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Health campaigners in Ireland have increased pressure on the government to introduce new laws to restrict “relentless” junk food advertising targeted at children.

The Irish Heart Foundation wants 30,000 people to sign its petition calling for government intervention on digital advertising of unhealthy foods. The charity’s new campaign – Stop Targeting Kids – is based on three fake brands that will “expose the unscrupulous tactics used by junk food and drinks companies to influence children”.

Brands are able to “follow children wherever they go”, said head of advocacy Chris Macey. “It’s almost like your child has their own individual marketer following them around.”

Industry representatives hit back at the “negative characterisation” of the marketing policies employed by the country’s food and beverage firms. Food Drink Ireland noted that “many members” are signatories to the EU Pledge on online advertising, whilst 98% abide by the ASAI code of standards for advertising and marketing communications in Ireland.

Lack of laws

In 2013, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland introduced bans on advertising of unhealthy foods during children’s TV and radio programmes. However, digital media channels remain unregulated.

The country’s Department of Health is currently working on a new code of practice for food and drink promotion, marketing and sponsorship as part of its national obesity plan. FDI director Paul Kelly told FoodNavigator that the plan is “at an advanced stage, due in large part to the constructive engagement of FDI and its members”.

But campaigners are concerned it won’t go far enough. A report published by the IHF last year suggested voluntary schemes to restrict food marketing are “weaker and less effective than statutory regulation”. Researchers also discovered that children in Ireland were being targeted online with “subtle, sophisticated and surreptitious methods”.

“There’s conclusive proof of a causal link between junk food marketing to children and childhood obesity,” Macey explained. “We believe the government is failing in its duty of care to protect children from the damage that junk brand advertising is having on their health and we are seeking the public’s support to force stronger action.”

IHF’s new campaign features videos using fake junk food brands that “parody specific marketing strategies used in real life”. The foundation’s dietician Janis Morrissey explained:

“Multinationals say treats are for eating in moderation and we are calling for that same moderation to apply to their marketing tactics so they stop targeting kids.”

Ireland is on its way to being Europe’s most obese nation by 2030, with one in four schoolchildren currently overweight and obese. Overweight and obesity levels have doubled in the past two decades.

In September the government launched an ambitious national obesity plan, which included proposals for a sugary drinks tax, maximum portion sizes and reformulation targets, as well as marketing restrictions through the new code of practice.

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