A century ago, the biggest threat to children's health in Britain was malnutrition. Poor nutrition still casts a shadow over our children's health today. But nowadays the problem is often not too little food, but too much of the wrong food.
And the nutrition crisis for Britain's children is partly driven by unaccountable and out-of-control marketing by fast food multinationals, whose only real concern is profit.
So research published today by the Journal of Paediatrics about the influence of advertising on young people's food choices makes for urgent reading for policy makers. The study suggests that even with children as young as three, advertising influences on children's healthy food choices can be considerable. This research also reveals that parental influence has only a small moderating influence on the effect of advertising.
Britain has its fattest ever generation of children. A quarter of children are overweight by the time they start primary school. By the time that they leave, the proportion has risen to a third. Childhood obesity is not "puppy fat" which children can be expected to grow out of. Fat children are likely to become fat adults. There are a range of chronic conditions associated with poor nutrition and obesity ranging from diabetes to cancer. Not only can these health conditions ruin your quality of life, but they are costing the NHS millions to treat. Diabetes drugs alone take up the greater part of the drugs bill in some parts of the UK.
We cannot leave parents to struggle alone against the influence of advertising by food multinationals. The last Labour government took an important first step by banning junk food advertising from programmes aimed at four to nine year olds.
Yet the current Conservative Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, appears to be heading backwards on the issue of public health and nutrition. He has cut funding for the important public health program "Change4Life" and has slashed budgets for public health information campaigns.
There is also alarm at his refusal to ban trans-fats, whilst other countries take bold steps to do this. And he is ever more reliant on working with the food industry. He sets great store by his "responsibility deals" with retailers and manufacturers.
But health groups and organisations like the British Medical Association are walking way from these arrangements. They argue that these deals are tantamount to Lansley allowing drinks companies and fast food outlets to write government policies. The chaos of this government's NHS reorganisation means that progress that may have been made locally by means of innovative programmes on nutrition and health, may be lost as PCTs disappear and a range of private providers come on the scene.
Lansley argues that nutrition is all about people taking personal responsibility. He derides the idea of the "nanny state". In 2008, he even told the country that there is 'no excuse for people to be too fat.' But how can, even the most well intentioned parents take responsibility when research like the report published today shows how powerful the influence of advertising is?
We must take action to stop fast food multinationals driving a wedge between British parents and their children. The government needs to be on British parents' side in the battle to ensure our children's health and well-being. This means much more pro-active policies than Lansley has been prepared to contemplate so far. It took decisive government action to protect children in the last century from the scourge of diseases like rickets. It will take a far-reaching government programme to protect this century's children from the scourge of obesity related disease.
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