Leading Doctors Call for Urgent Crackdown on Junk Food
Presidents of two royal colleges of medicine urge government
to restrict advertising and sponsorship by makers of unhealthy
foods and introduce diet health warnings
Leading doctors today weigh in on the debate over the government's
role in promoting public health by demanding that ministers impose
"fat taxes" on unhealthy food and introduce cigarette-style warnings
to children about the dangers of a poor diet.
The demands follow comments last week by the health secretary, Andrew
Lansley, who insisted the government could not force people to make
healthy choices and promised to free businesses from public health
But senior medical figures want to stop fast-food outlets opening
near schools, restrict advertising of products high in fat, salt or
sugar, and limit sponsorship of sports events by fast-food producers
such as McDonald's.
They argue that government action is necessary to curb Britain's addiction
to unhealthy food and help halt spiralling rates of obesity, diabetes
and heart disease. Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that the consumption
of unhealthy food should be seen to be just as damaging as smoking
or binge drinking.
"Thirty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have imagined
a ban on smoking in the workplace or in pubs, and yet that is what
we have now. Are we willing to be just as courageous in respect of
obesity? I would suggest that we should be," said the leader of the
UK's children's doctors.
Lansley has alarmed health campaigners by suggesting he wants industry
rather than government to take the lead. He said that manufacturers
of crisps and confectionery could play a central role in the Change4Life
campaign, the centrepiece of government efforts to boost healthy eating
and fitness. He has also criticised the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's
high-profile attempt to improve school lunches in England as an example
of how "lecturing" people was not the best way to change their behaviour.
Stephenson suggested potential restrictions could include banning
TV advertisements for foods high in fat, salt or sugar before the
9pm watershed and limiting them on billboards or in cinemas. "If we
were really bold, we might even begin to think of high-calorie fast
food in the same way as cigarettes by setting stringent limits on
advertising, product placement and sponsorship of sports events,"
Such a move could affect firms such as McDonald's, which sponsors
the youth coaching scheme run by the Football Association. Fast-food
chains should also stop offering "inducements" such as toys, cuddly
animals and mobile phone credit to lure young customers, Stephenson
Professor Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists,
said: "Some types of processed foods are harmful to the physical,
and consequently mental, health of individuals. There ought to be
serious consideration given to banning advertising of certain foods
and certain processed foods and to levying tax on fatty, unhealthy
foods, which would be ring-fenced for the NHS, which deals with the
consequences of fatty foods."
School pupils need to be told more about the effects of bad diet,
said Bhugra: "If children are taught about the impact that food has
on their growth, and that some things can harm, at least information
is available up front."
He also urged councils to impose "fast-food-free zones" around schools
and hospitals areas within which takeaways cannot open.
Stephenson and Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College
of General Practitioners, said that Lansley was right to stress the
importance of personal responsibility, as well as government action,
in ending the country's dysfunctional relationship with food. Both
strongly criticised parents for setting their children a bad example
by overeating, serving poor quality food and exercising too little.
"Parents are role models for their children. It's crucial that they
set the tone for what the children eat and their physical activity,"
said Stephenson. "The fact that one third of our children are now
overweight?… must mean that their parents are allowing them to eat
excessive amounts of food."
Parents should exercise "portion control" in the amount they eat,
and limit the amount of fast food and ready meals they feed their
children, he added.
Field, a GP in Birmingham, said: "Too many parents show too little
responsibility in passing on good eating and drinking habits to their
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We need to create a new
vision for public health where all of society works together to get
healthy and live longer. This includes creating a new 'responsibility
deal' with business, built on social responsibility, not state regulation.
Later this year, we will publish a white paper setting out exactly
how we will achieve this."
The food industry will be alarmed that such senior doctors back such
radical moves, especially the call to use some of the tough tactics
that have been deployed against smoking over the last decade. Last
month the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended
a host of measures to make food healthier to reduce strokes and heart
attacks, and save an estimated 40,000 lives a year. But the department
of health dismissed its proposals as unrealistic.
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