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09/11/03 . by Kamal Ahmed, Jo Revill and Gaby Hinsliff . The Observer . UK
Official: fat epidemic will cut life expectancy
Supermarkets act as health chief sounds obesity alarm
The child obesity epidemic caused by poor nutrition and lack of exercise is creating a looming health crisis, with average life expectancy expected to drop for the first time in more than a century.
Faced with the prospect of rising death rates as a result of obesity-related illnesses, the Government's most senior adviser on food and health warned for the first time that children growing up today will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said that obesity was a 'ticking timebomb' that was one of the most serious issues facing the nation.
In a signal of the seriousness with which the food industry is now taking the epidemic of bad health associated with poor diet, Sainsbury's is set to announce that it will begin cutting salt in its foods after evidence that high intake leads to a higher death rate.
The Government is also calling an emergency 'salt summit' on Tuesday to demand action from companies such as Heinz, McDonald's and Bird's Eye.
In an interview with The Observer to launch what he described as a 'wide-reaching public debate' on what should be done to tackle obesity, Krebs said that doing nothing was not an option.
'What we are faced with is a situation where, if nothing is done to stop the trend, for the first time in a hundred years life expectancy will actually go down,' he said.
'[That] is an extraordinary reversal of the general gains in health. We're all looking forward to a longer and healthier old age, and that trend could be reversed.
'So that's what we're staring at, a public health timebomb which could explode. Which is why I think that all the people who have looked at it feel that something has got to be done. The difficulty is determining what that something is.'
Life expectancy has doubled in the past 140 years in Britain with better healthcare and improved working conditions. Men can now expect to live to an average age of 75.3, while for women the age is just over 80. A reversal in that trend would be one of the most significant changes in health of the 21st century.
The agency will this weekend publish a report setting out a series of policy options which could help people, particularly children, lead a healthier life. The Observer campaign, Fit for the Future, is also pushing for more sport in schools and for the Government to encourage a healthier lifestyle.
'There's a general trend to greater obesity,' Krebs said. 'More than half of the population are overweight or obese.
'Obesity carries with it very significant health risks. Risks of increased heart disease, type II diabetes, which is now beginning to appear in children for the first time, and certain kinds of cancer are linked with obesity.'
The agency says that options that should be considered by the Government include:
* reducing fat, salt and sugar in children's food;
* restricting the amount of advertising of sweets, crisps and snack foods during children's programmes;
* banning food adverts aimed at pre-school children;
* making 'health warnings' compulsory on some foods;
* banning vending machines from schools which only sell sugar drinks or sweets;
* blocking celebrity endorsement of sweets and promotions which link the buying of sweets and crisps in return for school equipment.
Krebs made it clear that he wanted to explore voluntary agreements before proposing new legislation which would force food companies to act.
He criticised Cadbury's Get Active scheme and its endorsement by the Government because it linked getting sports equipment with the amount of sweets that were bought.
'You could deliver that in another way,' he said. 'If the company wanted to sponsor sports in schools, it could just give the money.'
Ministers have also told The Observer that they are instigating a full-scale review of the advertising code that allows food giants to spend millions promoting their products on children's TV.
The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, said she would ask the new communications regulator Ofcom to review the current code which governs the content of commercials. There is particular concern about the way the pre-school children are being targeted by the junk food manufacturers.
But she firmly closed the door on a ban on food adverts during children's TV time, arguing that it would leave the independent broadcasters with far less money to spend on programmes.
'If you simply say, we will end all these adverts, there are real questions over whether it would have any effect,' she said.
Jowell stressed the enormous government effort to increase participation in sport across the nation, to combat the couch-potato lifestyles by helping schools bring in specialist coaches and offer more sport, and she supported The Observer 's campaign, although she said it would take time to roll out two hours of school sport each week to all children. At the salt 'summit' at the Department of Health the Public Health Minister, Melanie Johnson, will call on other supermarkets to follow suit.
She has warned that if voluntary action is not forthcoming the Government may have to regulate to cut salt content from a wide range of foods.
The Food Standards Agency's report was welcomed last night by a number of groups, but there remains much scepticism over whether Ministers will be tough enough to demand the necessary changes.
Neville Rigby, policy director at the International Obesity Taskforce, said: 'It's time that the whole of society looked carefully at how we expose children, inside school and outside, to these commercial pressures on food.'
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited