Revealed: The millions Northern Ireland hospitals make selling junk food
Hospitals criticised as 'unhealthy' snack machines raise millions
Hospitals in Northern Ireland have been criticised for cashing in on the sale of unhealthy snacks.
More than 300 vending machines are installed in local hospitals, stocked with sugary drinks, chocolate, crisps and sweets.
They have generated more than £2.6m for health trusts in the last five years.
The criticism comes as an obesity crisis faces the health service.
Almost two-thirds of adults here are overweight or obese. The cost of dealing with obesity is now around £460m a year, according to official figures.
Health experts have called for vending machines that sell unhealthy snacks to be banned from hospitals.
Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum said: "Profits can be made from vending machines selling healthy items, but hospitals stocking food in them which is high in fat, sugar or salt is out of order.
"Patients are in hospital to get better and should not have access to food which may well have sent them there in the first place.
"If visitors or staff want to take in junk food with them, that's their choice, but such stuff should not be available on-site."
Currently there are 314 vending machines in hospitals across the five health trusts. Over the last five years the trusts received income totalling £2,641,310 from the machines.
The Belfast Trust, Northern Ireland's biggest health trust, has the highest number of machines - 134 - and received £1,330,923 over the five years.
The South Eastern Trust was the second highest recipient - £618,854 from 53 machines.
The figures were obtained by the Belfast Telegraph following Freedom of Information requests.
Some vending machines offer healthier options, including water and fruit. But in most cases they are stocked with junk food.
A visitor to one hospital contacted this newspaper to complain about machines packed with crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks, prompting our enquiry.
Former Health Minister Jim Wells said hospital vending machines offering unhealthy snacks and drinks were sending out a "mixed message" .
"I've no objection to hospitals selling food goods, but they should be offering healthy options," he said.
"I know when I've been in hospital for my wife, I've noticed vending machines offering bottled water and diet drinks, but it is sending a out a mixed message when we have a Type 2 diabetes crisis - which is linked to the rise in obesity, which we know is linked to fizzy, sugary drinks."
Mr Wells, a DUP MLA who has had the party whip withdrawn, said the public should avail of healthier options on offer, including at hospital canteens.
However, another former Health Minister, Edwin Poots, said he had no issue with snacks being sold at hospitals.
"Vending machine products are not entirely unhealthy - you will have items such as water," he said. "However, if people are unwell and want a bar of chocolate, I don't have a big issue with that, especially when some of the profits can be reinvested in the health service.
"If the service was to be withdrawn, I'm sure there would be an outcry."
Mr Poots added: "If someone wants a packet of crisps or bar of chocolate then fair enough. It's certainly not the biggest issue facing our health service."
The Public Health Agency said an obesity prevention strategy commits to ensuring that nutritional standards are in place for staff and visitors in health and social care settings.
It said: "Lessons are being learnt from the experience of other jurisdictions such as the Republic of Ireland, which has already introduced vending standards. Detailed work will be undertaken on vending and will focus on a cap on the percentage of drinks sold which are not water; a calorie cap on individual food items sold; and providing healthier options.
"The vending contract will be procured in 18 months' time and will have to comply with the standards."
The Belfast Trust said it supports strategies to encourage balanced diets, and has taken steps to ensure that patients, visitors and staff have access to healthy options on its sites.
These include providing fresh fruit and other healthy snacks in hospital shops as well as analysing the nutritional content of food served in its canteens to ensure balance and variety.
"We also place healthier, non-sugary drinks at eye level within vending machines and provide dietary advice in our canteens," it said. The South Eastern Trust said: "Vending machines are located where a need has been identified to provide patients, visitors and staff with an option to purchase food and beverages at times and locations where other food outlets are either unavailable or unviable."
It added: "The trust is committed to transforming the product offering in these machines and help staff and public make healthier choices so we can allow them to improve their health and wellbeing.
"An increasing number of healthier options are already available in vending machines; however, we continue to work with suppliers and the procurement and logistics service to enhance our offering as vending contracts are renewed."