It’s just so tiresome for parents to be forced on the defensive every single place they go. On a family day out to the zoo or to a theme park - ‘No, you can’t have an ice cream’. Going swimming and as they walk into the leisure centre - ‘No, you can’t have a smoothie’. A trip to the cinema and, yet again, parents are forced into the hard-faced negative - ‘No junk food – the cinema is the treat.’ Even in the chemist - ‘No you can’t have a lollypop’! All these ‘no’s’ are exhausting, and they set a negative and irritable tone to every outing with the kids.
Sophisticated marketing campaigns slyly pit children against their parents by taking advantage of pester-power and so, all day, every day parents have the choice either to be the ‘baddie’ or else accept defeat and allow the junk food culture to take over their children’s lives. Grandparents often scoff and say that children simply need to be taught at an early age that ‘no means no’ but then, when they were raising their children they weren’t subject to the rampant commercialisation of childhood that exists today. The impact of insidious marketing campaigns and subliminal messages such as product placement means that even that beacon of athletic excellence, the Olympics, was criticised as a ‘carnival of junk food marketing’ and a limited edition of Brazilian flag-coloured M&M’s became wildly popular during the games.
It is accepted that we have an obesity crisis, it is also acknowledged that sugar is one of the principal culprits in this; and yet, the Irish Beverage Council argue that introducing a sugar tax to tackle childhood obesity would have no impact on Ireland’s obesity epidemic. It brings to mind Eddie Izzard’s quip about the U.S. gun laws: "They say that 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' Well I think the gun helps." Similarly, maybe sugar-sweetened drinks don’t make children fat – but they certainly help!
The easiest way to give a child a ‘treat’ today is by giving them sugar; it’s cheap and it’s always accessible, but if a sugar tax is brought in, then it sends a clear statement to everyone. No more will friends and relatives blithely arrive at the door laden with ‘special treats’ – instead adults will have to put a little more thought into what ‘treats’ to give the children in their lives.
Of course, sugar isn’t the only culprit in our obesity crisis; lack of sleep and our sedentary lifestyle also have a significant impact on our weight – but then if you are tired or bored, scoffing a sugar-based snack is a guaranteed pick-me-up. Leading obesity expert, Professor Dónal O'Shea, believes that Irish people consume too much sugar: "The pattern of consumption of sugar in Ireland is highly abnormal, and the parts of the brain that light up when it's eaten fit in with the theory that it is addictive." In truth, most of us don’t need an obesity expert to tell us that certain foods are psychologically addictive – because most of us are living with the dubious joys of needing chocolate as a pick-me-up!
Some people argue that perhaps we should demand even more than a ‘sugar tax’ from regulation bodies. As it is, many of us would need to have a degree in either nutrition or business and marketing to be able to figure out whether the latest snack on the market really is ‘healthy and nutritious’ or utter rubbish. Perhaps food in supermarkets should be separated into standardised ‘healthy, neutral or treat’ sections? This could be arranged using the already popular traffic light system: with the green section of the aisle for healthy food to be lower down, at the height of small children, the amber section for neutral food at mid-height, and the red section for food that should be consumed strictly as a treat, on the high shelves (along with the vodka), so the parents wouldn’t be pester-powered to death so easily during every single shopping trip.
Time magazine tells us that ‘obesity is a bigger global health threat than tobacco use’. We would be horrified if tobacco companies targeted children in their marketing campaigns, and yet we blithely allow marketing campaigns to relentlessly target junk food to unsuspecting children. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it puts too much pressure on the parents, and this proposed health levy on sugar-sweetened drinks is the first step in the fight back.
As it is today, parents need to teach their children about the concept of marketing and how the canny marketing managers are busily trying to swipe Mummy and Daddy’s money by luring children with their plastic toys, bright colours and false promises. If you can teach your children how marketing works, then your children will become savvier individuals, more adept at the ways of the modern world, and more aware of the sly tricks that pit children against their parents.
Psychotherapist & Career Guidance Specialist