The Irish Heart Foundation says marketers target children through social media

The Irish Heart Foundation is calling for a total ban on the marketing of junk food to children under the age of 16.

The foundation is warning that child obesity is the single biggest threat to the country's health.

It said digital marketing remains unregulated in Ireland - allowing multinational junk food companies to target children with "unscrupulous" tactics.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Children's Committee today, IHF head of advocacy Chris Macey said the government must take stronger action to protect children:

"We know junk food marketing is fuelling obesity; that obesity is damaging children and that the State is failing to protect children's health," he said.

"The only remedy, as far as we are concerned, is an outright ban on unhealthy food marketing to under-sixteen's."

The IHF 'Stop Targeting Children' campaign has been running since March 2017 - warning that lack of online regulation has allowed marketers to gain access to children's social media and interact with them like they are friends.

The foundation said the tactics allow junk food brands to "become part of children’s social lives" adding that "they even get children to act as marketers for them by tagging their friends in to ads, and posting messages and pictures of themselves."

Targeting children

At the Oireachtas Committee, Mr Macey said the recent revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica highlight the need to extend broadcast advertising regulation to the online sphere.

"If a small consultancy company virtually nobody had 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.

"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."

He said junk food marketers have been using these tactics "for years to bombard children with clever marketing messages that distort their food choices."

The foundation has warned that one-in-four children in Ireland is obese.