UK launches public health drive

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Public health, Nutrition

The British government has released its long-awaited policy paper
on public health today with plans to tackle obesity, curb public
smoking and address the way food companies target children through
advertising.

The white paper, a document that lays out plans to legislate without confirmation of when the laws would be brought in, made the front pages of most national media last weekend, and is being called the biggest shake-up in public health for years.

It is significant in its focus on prevention of illness, rather than treatment and care for the sick, and as a result, will have a major impact on the food industry, increasingly being held responsible for obesity and obesity-related disease.

It will also be influential on public opinion, spelling out more than ever before, the role of a healthy lifestyle including diet in preventing disease.

In the white paper, the government has given broadcast media watchdog, Ofcom, the task of working with the food industry to cut down on junk food adverts before the 9pm UK watershed; with a view to legislation and a possible ban in 2007 if satisfactory progress is not made.

Current statistics suggest the prevalence of obesity in British children is four times higher today than it was 30 years ago. A 2002 survey found that one in five boys and one in four girls aged two to 15 years old are dangerously overweight.

Other measures recommended in the paper include clearer labelling of sugar, fat and salt content on many foods by the middle of next year. It is thought that this may include a new 'traffic light' labelling system; identifying unhealthy foods with a red label, nutritious but high-fat foods, such as cheese, with an orange label and healthy choices with green.

The system, likely to receive criticism from some food manufacturers, would be voluntary. However supermarket chain Sainsbury's has announced it will introduce its own coloured logos to signify healthier options from January.

Competitor Tesco is also said to be looking into a traffic light system based on dietary targets from the World Health Organisation and the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy.

Ministers from other parties were however critical of the voluntary labelling system. Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, told the Daily Telegraph: "It will be a mixture of half-measures that will fail to get to grips with the public health crises this country faces. Voluntary labelling of fast food will cause confusion and fail to inform the public."

UK government health secretary, John Reid, said: "It is clear we need to do more as a society to improve peoples' health. Having defeated many deadly infectious diseases, we now face the challenge of avoidable ill-health caused by poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking."

Related topics: Markets, Health

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