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10/11/03 . by James Meikle, health correspondent . The Guardian . UK
Children's TV snack adverts face ban
Food watchdog launches debate on action after obesity warning
The government's food watchdog launched a consultation on defusing an "obesity time bomb" yesterday by raising the possibility of bans on TV advertising aimed at children, and health warnings on foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
Consumers are being invited to decide whether companies should be allowed to use celebrities to promote children's products through TV advertising or sponsorship.
Schemes that reward schools with books or sports equipment for consuming more of their products will be scrutinised, as will vending machines in schools that offer no healthy alternatives.
The consultation, organised by the Food Standards Agency, provoked warnings from industry of a "nanny state" approach. But the chairman of the agency, Sir John Krebs, said doing nothing was "not an option".
He said: "We know already that many children's diets contain more fat, sugar and salt than is recommended. We know that the level of obesity in children is rising and, in the words of the chief medical officer, is a health time bomb.
"By 2010, it could cost £3.6bn a year and be a very significant factor in the ill health of thousands of people."
About 24 million Britons are overweight or obese - more than half the adult population. Obesity among six-year-olds has doubled in recent years to 8.5%, and trebled to 15% in 15-year-olds. Children are being diagnosed as having a weight-related type of diabetes once limited to the middle-aged, and there are fears that some cancers are diet-related.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is known to be reluctant to ban TV food adverts aimed at youngsters, although the backbench Labour MP Deborah Shipley is trying through a private member's bill to stop such advertising for pre-school children.
Existing codes stipulate that adverts may not encourage children to eat or drink frequently during the day, or suggest that confectionery or snacks can replace balanced meals. The food industry recently promised to reduce salt in food.
But the Food Standards Agency yesterday pointed to a study by the campaign group Sustain, published in 2001, which found that half the adverts during children's TV programmes were from food companies - against only a fifth during adult programming. Many adverts promoted breakfast cereals, soft drinks, savoury snacks, confectionery and fast food.
The agency published research last month by Gerard Hastings of the University of Strathclyde's centre for social marketing, which found food advertising did have an effect on children.
A poll for the Guardian by ICM found recently that nearly 70% of adults favoured banning crisp, chocolate and fizzy drink vending machines from schools; 57% wanted food advertising banned during children's TV.
The FSA is also urging the industry to apply the same incentives to healthy foods as it does to unhealthy options: placing products near checkouts, using cartoon characters to promote them, allocating reward points, and introducing "buy one get one free" promotions.
The Consumers' Association last night welcomed the agency consultation.
Martin Paterson, the deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, said food promotion was already highly regulated and the industry took a "very responsible view" about products aimed at children. "Parents will take a dim view of 'nanny state' approaches to matters of personal choice," Mr Paterson said.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited