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MP urges passage of junk food bill

By Leah Vyse , 17-Oct-2005

Junk food adverts targeted directly at kids must be banned if the UK is to seriously tackle the issue of childhood obesity, claims an MP.

As a result, a bill has been proposed that would prohibit the marketing to children of those foods that are "detrimental to the health, well-being or educational performance" of children.

These include foods that may not be exclusively children's foods, for instance crisps, sugary soft drinks and chocolate bars, but which are aggressively marketed to them.

The MP behind the initiative, Mary Creagh, is introducing the Children's Food Bill because she believes the government has not gone far enough.

Earlier this year the Choosing Health, White Paper launched by Blair's government asked advertisers in the food industry to voluntarily cease advertising of foods high in salt and sugar to children. The government said if this was not achieved by 2007 it will seek to legislate.

But Creagh believes that so far this has not, and will not, work. She is seeking immediate action, believing the issue of children's health is not one that should wait for the voluntary actions of food advertisers which may potentially lose revenue if it is enforced.

Creagh has significant academic backing for her campaign. In July 2004 Ofcom published research that supported the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) conclusion of the direct effect of television food advertising on children's diets.

Both the FSA and Ofcom are said to agree that there are also significant indirect effects of advertising, which have a 'powerful influence' on young people's diets.

The research also suggests that food promotions to children are dominated by unhealthy foods and more than 95 per cent of all the foods advertised on children's television are for products which are high in fat, sugar or salt.

Point-of-sale advertising in supermarkets would also be clamped down on if the bill were passed. Creagh, who proposed the bill in May this year, is concerned that the use of cartoon characters to sell such products needs to change as children easily recognise them.

Not everyone believes that such a ban would be effective. The Incorporated Society of British advertisers (ISBA) for example, argues there is no short-term fix for the rising obesity problem in the UK.

"It is irresponsible to simply blame advertisers, this is a serious social issue which will not be resolved over night. Some campaigners are avoiding responsibility and using advertisers as an easy hit", said director of public affairs, Ian Twinn.

He claimed that ISBA, which represents food manufacturers and retailers from across the board, should be encouraged to use advertising as a positive tool in the fight for healthy lifestyles of young children.

Discussing advertisements aimed at children, Martin Paterson, deputy director of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said: "We share the scepticism about the usefulness of bans expressed by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and indeed Ofcom. However we agree that the regime must be tightened.

"The food and drink industry, along with the wider advertising sector, last month announced proposals including the creation of a new section in the non-voluntary broadcasting codes specifically on advertising to children."

Some companies have already taken a stance. Coca-Cola, for example, does not advertise in the UK to children under 12, and they claim not to use celebrities in promotional campaigns which may have a direct appeal to the under 12s.

"Solutions to food and health issues, particularly those involving children, will require all parties, including politicians, the food chain and government, to find ways of working together. This bill highlights many areas where such cooperation could be fruitful. The current Food Standards Agency salt awareness campaign is an excellent example of how industry and government can work together," said Paterson.

Interestingly, Creagh has employed the celebrity-based tactics of the advertisers she is working against in order to raise awareness of the proposed legislation.

For example, an open letter signed by 23 prominent food writers and chefs was this week sent to Prime Minister Tony Blair in an attempt to receive his support for the Children's Food Bill.

The bill, which will receive its second Commons reading on 28 October, is already supported by more than 200 cross-party MPs and 150 national organisations.

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