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The government has promised that it will take concrete action to tackle rising levels of obesity in children “in the autumn.”
The secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Tessa Jowell, made the comments last week at a London seminar on nutrition, education, and advertising for children, organised by the Westminster diet and health forum, a discussion group involving cross party MPs, regulators, and industry representatives.
The government is due to publish its white paper on public health this summer. This will make recommendations on improving diet and exercise in schools and on how manufacturers can reduce the amount of fat, sugar, and salt in processed foods.
Ms Jowell said that regulations on broadcast advertising needed to be strengthened. She had commissioned a review of the advertising code, she said, because current provision had failed to provide the “degree of protection public opinion expects.” Too few complaints relating to the breaking of the code had been resolved, she said.
Ofcom, the broadcast and telecommunications regulator, is set to publish its proposals on regulating the advertising code in respect of children in July. The Food Standards Agency is expected to follow suit in September, with the publication of its action plan on food promotion to children.
Ms Jowell also emphasised the importance of engaging young people in sport. The government plans to create 1700 new sports facilities by 2006, she said, adding that these had a vital role in encouraging children to become more active.
“Our ambition for 2008 is for every child to play two hours a week of high quality physical activity, on a sustained basis,” she said.
The government's proposals would completely transform the current situation, said Ms Jowell. The London bid for the Olympics in 2012 would also help encourage young people to become more interested in sport, she thought.
“Obesity is a complex phenomenon which requires action by the government, industry, schools, and other agents,” she said. The challenge lay in getting the balance right, she added. “The measures to be taken have to be evidence based and proportionate.”
But more needed to be done to convince people that they could take responsibility for themselves to prevent ill health, she said.
Professor John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency said that the problems of trying to make sure that people ate a healthy diet were not restricted to obesity.
In a survey that the agency published earlier this year, over half (59%) of those questioned recognised the importance of eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. And half of the respondents were concerned about the amount of fat in food. But he said that the gap between awareness and taking action was wide.
“The aim [of the action plan] is to create an environment where healthy choices are the easier choices. The government is responsible for making a choice easy to make,” he said. Advertising was very powerful, he said. Let's use it to the good.”