Failing to provide a healthy future for our children

By June Shannon Policy News   |   19th Feb 2020

Landmark report from the WHO, UNICEF and Lancet Commission calls for tighter regulation of junk food marketing to children

As Ireland marks the second anniversary of the launch of a voluntary measure aimed at preventing brands targeting children with junk food marketing, the Irish Heart Foundation has today (Wednesday 19th February 2020) welcomed a landmark Commission report convened by the WHO, UNICEF and The Lancet that found the health and future of every child worldwide is under immediate threat from climate change and exploitative marketing practices that push fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children.

On 14 February 2018, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Catherine Byrne launched the ‘Non-Broadcast Media Advertising and Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages, including Sponsorship and Retail Product Placement: Voluntary Codes of Practice,’. However, two years on, the voluntary code of practice remains entirely unenforced.

Today’s Commission report from the WHO, UNICEF and The Lancet, underlines the importance of what the Irish Heart Foundation has been saying for the past two years through its ‘Stop Targeting Kids’ campaign, that junk food marketing to children threatens their health and that voluntary codes of practice do not prevent brands from placing their profits over public health.

According to the Commission report entitled, A Future for the World’s Children? “Despite dramatic improvements in survival, nutrition, and education over recent decades, today’s children face an uncertain future. Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country.”

The Commission highlighted the distinct threat posed to children from harmful marketing. Evidence suggests that children in some countries see as many as 30,000 advertisements on television alone in a single year, while youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250 per cent in the USA over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people.

“Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children,"

Professor Anthony Costello, Professor of International Child Health and Director of the Institute for Global Health, University College London

Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission’s authors, said, “Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA – among many others – have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children. For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children.”

Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. The number of obese children and adolescents increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016 – an 11-fold increase, with dire individual and societal costs.

According to the report, “children around the world are enormously exposed to advertising from business, whose marketing techniques exploit their developmental vulnerability and whose products can harm their health and wellbeing. Companies make huge profits from marketing products directly to children and promoting addictive or unhealthy commodities, including fast foods, sugar sweetened beverages, alcohol, and tobacco, all of which are major causes of non­communicable diseases.”

The WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission report also includes a new global index of 180 countries, comparing performance on child flourishing, including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition; sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps.

According to the report, while the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions –disproportionately from wealthier countries – threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this will lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition, the report warned.

Ireland ranks in the top 10 countries worldwide (at number 5 – the UK is number 10 and Norway is number 1) for child flourishing it ranks much lower in terms of sustainability at 154 out of 180 countries.


The index shows that children in Norway, the Republic of Korea, and the Netherlands have the best chance at survival and well-being, while children in Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia, Niger and Mali face the worst odds.

However, when authors took per capita CO2 emissions into account, the top countries trail behind: Norway ranked 156, the Republic of Korea 166, and the Netherlands 160. Each of the three emits 210% more CO2 per capita than their 2030 target. The United States of America (USA), Australia, and Saudi Arabia are among the ten worst emitters.

While Ireland ranks in the top 10 countries worldwide (at number 5 – the UK is number 10 and Norway is number 1) for child flourishing, which include chances of survival, health, education and nutrition), it ranks much lower in terms of sustainability (per capita carbon emissions) at 154 out of 180 countries.

The report noted that, “exposure to polluted air prenatally and during early postnatal life is associated with an increased risk of acute respiratory diseases in childhood, with considerable morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, air pollution exposure impairs lung growth and reduces lung function; increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome; slows brain maturation; and impairs growth in cognitive function in schoolchildren.”

" Virtually all of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease are the same as those driving climate change,"

Helena O’Donnell, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, The Irish Heart Foundation

Helena O’Donnell, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer with the Irish Heart Foundation welcomed the report and said, “crucial health gains are now threatened by the emergence of the global climate crisis. Virtually all of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease are the same as those driving climate change. Whether its air pollution, sedentary lifestyles linked to transport systems or poor diet linked to food production systems, the linkages are clear and require decisive action. We are specifically concerned about junk food marketing, as research shows that it adds calories to children’s diets. We must do more to protect children’s health and we can start now by putting in place mandatory regulation that forbids junk food brands targeting under 18s.”

To protect children, the independent Commission authors called for a new global movement driven by and for children.

Specific recommendations include:

1. Stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, to ensure children have a future on this planet
2. Place children and adolescents at the centre of our efforts to achieve sustainable development
3. New policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights
4. Incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions
5. Tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing, supported by a new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Irish Heart Foundation welcomes these recommendations as they are in keeping with its recently launched Childhood Obesity Manifesto and its work on climate change.

For more information on the Irish Heart Foundation’s Stop Targeting Kids campaign please see here 


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Related Topics

cardiovascular disease climate change climate crisis junk food marketing Lancet stop targeting kids sugar sweetened drink WHO

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