A controversial government programme which gives fast-food chains influence over healthy eating policies has come under severe criticism after US research revealed the extent of "relentless marketing" of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

A report by the authoritative Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found companies such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Burger King spent more than $4bn advertising predominantly unhealthy fast foods in 2009.

Children and young people in the US are bombarded with increasing numbers and types of advertising through TV, radio, magazines, sophisticated websites and phone applications in spite of appeals from the White House to be more responsible, according to Fast Food F.a.c.t.s. Between 2007 and 2009, McDonald's and Burger King increased the number of TV adverts for children by 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively despite pledging to improve food marketing to children. The report, which analysed 20 of America's most popular fast-food outlets, found less than 1 per cent of kids' meal combinations met nutritional standards.

The report comes weeks after the government set up five expert groups. which include food and drinks giants such as McDonald's, Tesco, Pepsico, KFC and Unilever, to help to formulate public health policies. The Government will set out "pledges for action by industry" in a public health responsibility deal next spring.

Alan Maryon-Davis, honorary professor of public health at King's College London, said: "This is truly scary stuff. The report is a powerful wake-up call for us in the UK. Yes, we need to work together with the industry... but we must also be very aware of the subtle ways in which some fast-food chains get around voluntary agreements. The Health Secretary's anti-regulatory 'light touch' approach bothers me because we know from bitter experience that voluntary agreements don't work unless backed up by the threat of regulation."

According to the Health Survey for England, nearly two-thirds of all Britons are overweight or obese and the number is rising. The wider costs of obesity are expected to more than double to £37m by 2025, according to 2008 Foresight report.

The influential medical journal The Lancet published a 15-year study in 2004 which found regularly eating fast food increased the risk of obesity and diabetes. While British and American fast-food companies have increased the number of healthy options on offer, marketing continues to emphasise fat- and sugar-laden foods, said the Yale report.

While advertising rules are much more stringent in the UK, cutting budgets for Change4Life (a long-term healthy living campaign) and school sports suggests the Government is moving closer to the American model of "lighter touch" regulation.

John Healey, shadow Health Secretary, said: "The US experience shows the effect of government taking a hands-off approach to fast-food companies... yet Andrew Lansley wants to roll back government action for the nation's health. Worse, the Government is inviting the very companies who make some of the unhealthiest food available to have a hand in writing national public health policy."

A DoH spokesperson said: "The Government is not giving business power over public health policy. The Government is using its influence to work together with industry, the voluntary sector and local government. Together, the aim is to agree on a voluntary basis the actions that will deliver the improvements needed to help people make healthier choices."

In response to the Government's decision to work with fast-food chains, supermarkets and food and drink companies of public health policy, an editorial in The Lancet said: "That the companies who have profited the most from the epidemics of obesity and alcohol misuse should now be responsible for setting the agenda on public health simply beggars belief."

KFC UK and Pizza Hut UK both said they categorically never market to children. Burger King and McDonald's did not respond to Independent on Sunday questions.

Comments