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Sugar tactics: Irish children targeted on social media by sugar giants

Health expert fights on against the food and drink giants who target children and the poor as bad diet habits take heavy toll


Fears: Dr Donal O’Shea says there is an obesity epidemic. Photo: David Conachy.

Fears: Dr Donal O’Shea says there is an obesity epidemic. Photo: David Conachy.

Fears: Dr Donal O’Shea says there is an obesity epidemic. Photo: David Conachy.

Dr Donal O'Shea is the modern day hero taking on the sugar giants. It is a long and arduous battle that has taken years to yield even the slightest results.

Here's a perfect example: as part of the recent budget, there has been a price increase on sugary drinks - roughly 10c per can. Pretty straightforward, you might think. And given the World Health Organisation's warning that Ireland will be Europe's fattest nation by 2030, with 89pc of men and 85pc of women being overweight, the move is not before its time.

But it has taken Dr O'Shea six years and the support of three different health ministers to see the sugar tax pass.

The problem?

Aggressive lobbying by the food and drinks industry.

As Dr O'Shea, the Health Service Executive's Clinical Lead for Obesity, explains, the industry is "all over every government minister [and] every government public representative they can get near".

Their tactic? Jobs and money.

"I know [companies] who have threatened to move their facility to the North of Ireland if we introduced the sugar tax... I know public representatives who have said to me: 'I am sorry, we agree with you, but we can't [support this] because it's jobs in our area. The industry is very good at threatening loss of jobs either through reduced sales or through physically removing plants... they are tactics used internationally."

The cost, he says, is to our health and the health of our children. In the coming weeks he will meet with the National Children's Hospital to discuss the need to introduce obesity surgery for Irish children.

"It's a depressing day," says Dr O'Shea. "The population of childhood obesity has trebled - but that explosion in the extreme end is a disaster. We are seeing primary school kids with 40-inch waists."

The poorer the family, the more likely they are to have an obese child.

"If you are a well-off, educated three-year-old, your chance of being obese is 3-4pc. Whereas if you are from a lower socio-economic group, 12pc of children are obese by the age of three.

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"It's a class issue and that has not been addressed. The food and drinks industry is very good at targeting people who are more vulnerable in that environment.

He cites some tactics: "Last year, a company which makes a sugary product sent boxes of it to every creche in the country. They did it as part of a fundraising initiative for a well-known children's charity. It's really clever. I mean, can anyone really speak out against a fundraiser for a children's charity?

"The food and drinks industry hides behind kids and uses them as human shields and the people who fall for it tend to be more vulnerable and linked to lower income and education status."

He cites other well-known marketing tactics rarely questioned for their motives.

"At one stage, a soft drink company got the top 100 names in Ireland and put them on every bottle," says Dr O'Shea. More recently, children have been influenced by "eating games".

He describes the heavily advertised ''Doritos Roulette Challenge''. Advertised alongside a picture of a casino roulette wheel, it asks players if they "dare eat another and risk getting burned?" It also provides an official hashtag so they can post photographs of their efforts on social media alongside others.

"It's a game where one in 10 of the Doritos are hot chilli and 9 out of 10 are tangy cheese. The question is: who gets the hot chilli crisp? And you know, when you are 10 or 11, hot chilli is a disaster. It sends you running for the water font. So it's an eating game that targets kids in the middle of an obesity epidemic with a high fat, high salt product, and it's been very effective. I would give talks and no adult would have even heard of it - and then you'd go into a school and all of the first years would have played it."

Dr O'Shea takes a wry look at the temptation tactics: "You have to take your hat off to them. The industry has to do its job - I accept that. They have to look after their share holders and bottom line."

But, he adds, they should then be willing to take it on the chin when health experts fight back.

"They can't say 'this isn't fair' and 'we are only trying to create sustainable jobs'. They are using the same tactics as the cigarette industry in the 1960s.

"I am not in favour of a nanny state but I think there are times when government has to act because the industry forces are such that it's actually a nanny industry - it is running the show. And in that situation you have to fight fire with fire."

If the food and drinks industry continues to target children aggressively, Dr O'Shea believes the government has to respond in kind. "If that involves moving on to looking at a 'top shelf tax' [on the food pyramid] where you are looking at chocolate bars and other high sugar, high salt, high fat products, then I certainly think we will have to look at that."

Sugar tactics

Dr O'Shea on companies targeting public transport:

"I was in disbelief when I heard a fizzy drink company was sponsoring Dublinbikes [the capital's healthy transport initiative] a few years ago. The 'Healthy Ireland' framework had a launch at the same time, so it was like a slap in the face to that. Dublin City Council promised not to renew that contract. So when I saw another well-known fast-food delivery service advertised on the current bikes as their big new sponsor, I thought it was a joke. It is my ambition to see the 'Healthy Ireland' logo on the side of Dublinbikes when the next contract comes around. For that to happen, the 'healthy Ireland' initiative need to have a budget. Not a paltry €5m, which is progress this year, but tiny in the overall scheme of things."

Online 'advergames' use subtle messages to encourage youngsters to want a product. And it works. A recent study over 1,000 children by Radboud University in the Netherlands found those who play these games eat more than 50pc more sweets after playing.

As Dr O'Shea explains: "I have sat at committees where they are discussing the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland's crackdown on advertising to kids [on TV and radio] while all of this social media campaigning is being employed. The people sitting on the committee don't use it and don't know what it's about - but the food and drinks industry are all over it."

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