Labour Party parliamentarians are piling the pressure on culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell to ban food and drink advertising on pre-school children's TV programmes.
But Jowell's department is hesitant to impose a ban, allegedly because of lobbying from the advertising and media industries and fear that any such action will be labelled as 'nanny-state' interference.
Instead, ministers prefer to focus on increasing children's physical activity, claiming statistics show that today's children are 70% less physically active than thirty years ago. They also contend that kids' calorie intake has not worsened over that period.
But Debra Shipley, Labour MP for Stourbridge, is unimpressed by this argument and plans to reintroduce a bill today (Tuesday) to ban certain types of advertising. It is "completely stupid", she says, for ministers to pretend that the obesity crisis is caused solely by a lack of physical activity. "This is a crisis that has to be attacked on all fronts at once," she contends.
Shipley said secretary Jowell had challenged her to provide additional evidence of a link between obesity and food advertising. "I took her more [corroboration]; she then said she wanted to wait for a report from the Food Standards Agency."
When finally published [WAMN: 26-Sep-03], the report concluded that "advertising to children does have an effect on preferences, food-purchase behaviour and consumption".
Continued Shipley: "The government has to recognise that on the one side of this argument are the health organisations ... and on the other are the food and drink and advertising industry. Tessa Jowell needs to stop waiting and do something as a matter of urgency."
She added: "Little children watching independent television channels are daily bombarded with images of happy little boys and girls eating high fat, high sugar and high salt-content food and drink. They repeatedly hear jingles designed to appeal to them."
• STOP PRESS Tuesday 07.30 GMT
The Food Advertising Unit, an ad industry-funded centre for information, communication and research in the area of food advertising to children, today refuted Shipley's case for such a ban, citing a wide range of research and evidence.
In its refutation the FAU argues that ...
• There is no factual evidence that a ban will eliminate or reduce obesity.
• Professor Gerard Hastings, in the recent Food Standards Agency report, says that his studies "do not amount to proof."
• Quebec has had a ban for many years but childhood overweight and obesity is no lower than in any of the other Canadian provinces.
• Parents supply 90% of the family's food requirements - they control the diet.
• The UK already has one of the strictest codes of practice in the EU relating to the content of food advertising to children.
• Advertisers are not allowed to communicate excessive consumption or frequency, snacks cannot be portrayed as main meal substitutes and showing snacking pre-bedtime is forbidden.
• Overweight and obesity are caused by an imbalance between food consumption and energy expenditure.
• Government statistics actually show a decline in calorific intake amongst children over the last 10-15 years.
• But there has been an even greater reduction in exercise - there have been reductions in children walking and cycling to school, whilst less than 50% of children taking the Government recommended level of two hours PE each week.
• Changing lifestyles are at the core of the overweight/obesity problem.
• Recent research with 1500 independent parents acknowledged the presence of "pester power" but recognised it as part of a child's development
• More than 80% of parents stated that they did not concede to demands – parents are in control.
Says FAU director Jeremy Preston: "The food and advertising industries do acknowledge that the trend in overweight and obesity amongst children has to be addressed and wish to contribute to the solution. However, it is vital that any action plan is practical, sustainable, deliverable and achieves quantified goals – quick fixes to satisfy certain interest groups will not succeed in reducing levels of obesity amongst children."
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk and Food Advertising Unit; additional content by WARC staff