Health: Temptation for little hands: Sweet racks at supermarket check-outs are unfair, says Annabel Ferriman. A campaign aims to move them out of children's reach

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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU ARE a mother of two children and you have just slogged your way round the supermarket doing the weekly shop. You have skilfully dealt with most of the usual crises - the children pulling things from the shelves and poking bread sticks up their noses - and now you are at the check-out, exhausted but relieved. Then they spy the chocolate and sweets artfully displayed next to the till. You are trapped in a queue that is hardly moving. The pleading begins.

'Please can I have a bar of chocolate, mummy?'

'No, darling, it's not good for your teeth.'

'Oh, please, please. Just a small one.'

'No darling, absolutely not. I've already said no.'

'Oh, please. Just this once. I won't ask next time.'

'I've said no. Now don't ask again.'

'Why not?'

'I've already told you. It's bad for your teeth and anyway, it's almost lunchtime.'

'Please, please. It's not fair. Everyone else has sweets.'

'No, no, no.'

The crying begins, and the younger child starts to yell. The whole queue is looking at you - and so you give in. The battle was lost from the start.

Your children are a step nearer poor eating habits and dental decay, and you are left feeling bad-tempered and feeble. The only winners in this scene, enacted every day up and down the country, are the confectioners and the retailers who have clocked up yet another sale.

But enough is enough. A group of dentists, dietitians and health campaigners has decided that this exploitation of the customer has got to stop - in the interests of good teeth, healthy eating and parents' peace of mind. Their campaign, to be launched on Friday, aims to persuade every supermarket across Britain to make at least half its check-outs confectionery-free zones.

'We do not believe that parents should have to put up with this pressure when they have brought the supermarket their custom,' said Iona Smeaton, Merton and Sutton's chief community dietitian, who is chairing the campaign.

'You are forced to say no at least four or five times. Even if only one parent in ten gives in, that represents

a lot of kids having sweets between meals. Sometimes even when the parent says no, the child unwraps the chocolate, so the parent is forced to buy it anyway.'

Some chains may prove hard nuts to crack. Marks & Spencer, in particular, prides itself on the stylish confectionery displays next to its tills, and claims that lack of space makes it impossible to put the displays elsewhere. M & S does have a policy of providing two sweet-free check-outs in each shop, and Safeway provides at least one in each, but whether customers are aware of them is another matter, since the stores do not draw attention to them. By contrast, neither Sainsbury's nor Waitrose sells any sweets at check-outs. Other chains, such as Tesco and Kwik Save, display confectionery at alternate aisles.

The campaign is being run jointly by Action and Information on Sugars, a pressure group set up to persuade the nation to eat less sugar, and Slimmer magazine, which has been campaigning since last summer with the slogan 'Chuck sweets off the check-out'.

Between 30 and 40 local pressure groups have been established through the British Dietetic Association, which represents dietitians, and the National Dental Health Education Group, which represents dentists, dental therapists and hygienists. The national group has written to the head offices of all supermarkets and the local groups are targeting supermarket managers, to persuade them to change their policies.

'You sometimes get more response at local level,' said Madeleine Braithwaite, a dental therapist with South Derbyshire Health Authority and chair of the NDHEG. 'Supermarkets are exploiting shoppers at this strategic point. Supermarket shopping is stressful anyway. When you have a tired, bored, hungry child with you, it is particularly difficult. The check-out seems like the final battleground and supermarkets take advantage of this.

'One in three five-year-olds already has tooth decay. In some areas it is getting worse. If you snack throughout the day, with frequent sweet intakes, you are most at risk,' Mrs Braithwaite added.

'Children do sometimes get hungry between meals but I would recommend fruit or bread sticks or even a plain currant bun, because these things do not contain all the sugar and fat that sweets and chocolates do,' said Ms Smeaton. The Government has recommended that people should cut their sugar consumption to improve dental health and reduce obesity. It maintains that sugar should not make up more than a tenth of total calorie intake, compared with about 15 per cent at present.

Local parents' groups are supporting the campaign too. Francesca Simon, chair of the Tufnell Park Parents Support Group in north London, said: 'I don't think there is any excuse for having sweets placed at push-chair level.

'Stores are counting on parents not wanting to have a fight with their kids. Why don't they put fruit or books at the check-out if they want people to make impulse buys?'

Andrea Davies, a mother living in Tufnell Park, recounted a typical incident at her local Marks & Spencer store. 'I had my two-year-old daughter Mia with me and a friend of hers, as well as my three-month-old baby.

'While I was trying to pack up my shopping, pay for the food and keep an eye on the push-chair, which is always a hectic time, Mia and her friend each got hold of a large bar of chocolate and unwrapped it.

'The shop assistants were laughing at the children's antics and thought they were very funny, but I was obliged to pay for the bars, which I did not want them to have. It is wrong that the sweets are stacked so low.'

Various reasons were put forward by stores for displaying sweets at the check- out. A spokesman for Marks & Spencer said: 'We are committed to high-street rather than big out-of-town stores, so space is always going to be at a premium. We find that confectionery sits well in the slim units alongside the till points.

'We have not found that this is an issue with our customers, except in some cases where children have helped themselves. We have two tills at all our stores that are confectionery-free. In terms of healthy eating, it is up to the customer.' A spokesman for Safeway said: 'Sweets displayed at the check-out are geared more towards adult tastes. It is our policy that each store has one check-out in ten that is confectionery-free.'

And a spokeswoman for Gateway said: 'It is our policy to provide confectionery at some check-outs but not all. Local managers do react to local demand, however. If mothers with children asked for more confectionery-free check-outs, the local manager would consider providing them.'

Ms Smeaton believes that Gateway's comments are significant. 'Many of the supermarkets that we have contacted have said they will respond to customer demand. So everyone should make their voice heard.' Parent power at the check- out is the answer.

For further information, write to Iona Smeaton care of the Health Promotion Unit, Wilson Hospital, Cranmere Road, Mitcham, Surrey CR4 4TP.

(Photograph omitted)