Junk food ads for children on television to be banned

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Ministers will order television companies this week to come up with a new set of rules to stop children being exposed to advertisements encouraging them to fill their stomachs with unhealthy food or drink, or face an outright ban.

Ministers will order television companies this week to come up with a new set of rules to stop children being exposed to advertisements encouraging them to fill their stomachs with unhealthy food or drink, or face an outright ban.

Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, will be given the task of negotiating a new agreement that will affect all television advertising shown outside school hours and before 9pm.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, believes that he has public opinion behind him for a campaign that could hit powerful commercial interests, but will ease worries about the number of overweight children.

His public health White Paper, expected this week, will warn that if the industry does not police itself, the Government will legislate to make it illegal to advertise junk food when children are watching.

The White Paper will be the biggest shake-up in public health for years as the Government turns its attention from treating the sick to preventing illness. Smoking will be another main target while there will also be new warnings on binge drinking and unprotected sex.

There is no agreed definition of what junk food means, but the Food Standards Agency has issued guidelines on the sort of levels of fat, sugar and salt that are good for a child's health. Manufacturers will either have to change the nutritional content of what they are selling, or stop advertising on children's television.

Nervous about the prospect of legislation, the big food and drink producers have already been cutting back on television advertising, according to Nielsen Media Research, which counted 34,703 advertisements for junk food in the past year, compared with 44,336 the previous year.

Some of the big manufacturers such as Walkers, Kraft and McDonald's have taken steps to make their products more healthy, and Walkers is running a television campaign to "Get Britain walking".

On smoking, which Scotland, it was announced last week, is banning in enclosed public spaces, it had been expected that the Government might compel pubs and restaurants to apply for licences to allow smoking.

"The industry accepts we're smoking in the last chance saloon," a source for the brewers said. "We're not prepared to die in the last ditch for the big tobacco companies. John Reid has made it quite clear that if the industry doesn't deliver, he will legislate."

There will be other health measures in the White Paper. As first revealed in The Independent on Sunday, every NHS patient will be offered a free personal diet and fitness regime, or "health MOT" to help them keep fit.

A "traffic light" system for foods is also on the cards, so that customers can tell by looking at the red, amber or green colouring whether the food is healthy. There will be measures to deal with binge drinking, such as clear messages on the labels of cans and bottles to say how many units of alcohol the drink contains.

The Conservative health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, said: "The White Paper will make many bold promises ... However, we have heard this before. In contrast, the Conservatives will act."

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