The government's Food Standards Agency on Sunday announced a programme of public consultation on the so-called 'obesity time bomb', warning that unless action is taken by the food industry the agency could impose tobacco-style onpack health warnings on foods high in salt and sugar, as well as a ban on promoting such foods to children via TV.
FSA agency chairman Sir John Krebs says inaction is "not an option". The present voluntary advertising codes clearly state that ads must not encourage children to eat or drink frequently during the day; nor may they suggest that confectionery or snacks can replace balanced meals. Separately, the food industry recently undertook to reduce salt in food.
But, argues Krebs: "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 £3.6 billion ($6.03bn; €5,25bn) a year and be a very significant factor in the ill health of thousands of people."
More than half of adult Britons - some twenty-four million - are overweight or obese while among six-year olds the number has doubled in recent years to 8.5% and trebled to 15% among those aged 15.
The FSA links child obesity to TV advertising, citing a 2001 study by lobby group Sustain which found that half the ads during children's TV programmes were for food companies - compared with just 20% during adult programming. Many of the child-focused ads promoted breakfast cereals, soft drinks, savoury snacks, confectionery and fast food.
Food & Drink Federation deputy director general Martin Paterson insists that food promotion is already highly regulated and the industry takes a "very responsible view" about products aimed at children. The F&DF also argues that children's reduced levels of exercise are more to blame than diet for the upsurge in obesity. "Parents will take a dim view of 'nanny state' approaches to matters of personal choice," he said.
However, the 'nanny state' contention is not supported by an ICM study conducted recently for The Guardian newspaper. This found that 70% of UK adults favour a ban on crisps [potato chips], chocolate and fizzy drink vending machines in schools; while 57% supported a ban on food advertising during children's TV programmes.
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff