Fresh call for tobacco advertising ban: Activists blame government health strategy for failure to cut number of young smokers as obesity and suicides increase. Nicholas Timmins reports

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS faced renewed and concerted calls for a ban on tobacco advertising yesterday as a report on the first 16 months of the Health of the Nation strategy showed the Government struggling to meet some of its key targets.

Teenage smoking has remained static, defying a government target that it should fall by 33 per cent among 11- to 15-year-olds by the end of next year.

Obesity has risen. The number of men officially classified as obese has almost doubled in the five years to 1991, from 7 to 13 per cent of the population under 64, while the proportion of obese women has risen from 13 to 15 per cent.

The suicide rate also rose slightly, when the objective is to reduce it from 11 per 100,000 in 1990 to 9.4 per 100,000 by 2000.

The report also shows that while the number of deaths from coronary heart disease and strokes - two of the key killers being attacked by the strategy - had declined, it will need to fall faster if the total is to be cut by up to 40 per cent by 2000.

Likewise, tobacco consumption will have to fall 'substantially' faster than it has in the past three years, the report says, if the target of reducing it by 40 per cent, down from 98 billion cigarettes a year to just under 60 billion, is to be achieved. The report notes that the smokers who remain 'may be more dependent on tobacco and therefore find it harder to give up'.

The static picture on teenage smoking - and the failure to cut overall cigarette consumption as fast as intended - brought renewed calls from the British Medical Association, Parents Against Tobacco, and Action on Smoking and Health for a tobacco advertising ban.

Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA council, said that when teenage smoking had shown no fall over 10 years the Government should stop the advertising of this 'filthy, dangerous and lethal habit'.

'We know from the available research, which has been endorsed by the Department of Health's own economic adviser, that advertising does influence smoking, and there is no doubt that sports sponsorship and other tobacco advertising does directly induce young people to adopt a habit which will jeopardise their health,' he said.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, continued to resist such calls, saying the Government would keep controls on tobacco advertising under review but that advertising was one of only many factors which affected teenage smoking. Among children whose parents did not smoke, she said, the target of cutting teenage smoking had already been achieved. 'The powerful disapproval of parents seems to be the most important force for change'.

Jane Dunmore, director of Parents against Tobacco, said parents' pleas to children not to smoke were 'continually undermined by tobacco adverts and sports sponsorship which suggest that smoking is still socially desirable'.

The growth in the number of obese men and women points to strong resistance to advice to change eating and drinking habits and to take more exercise. The numbers have not risen since the Health of the Nation strategy started. They were revealed earlier this year by a study undertaken as part of it, but they did make the Government's target of cutting the number of obese men by 25 per cent, and the number of obese women by 33 per cent, 'more challenging', Mrs Bottomley said.

Ministers could, however, still take comfort from 16 of the 19 targets moving in the right direction, even if the report does note that it is early days for the strategy to have had an impact.

For gonorrhoea, a 20 per cent cut in new cases - the target set for 1995 - has already been achieved. Deaths from accidents among children under 15 are down 9 per cent, while there have also been falls in deaths from coronary heart disease, strokes and lung cancer.

The Health of the Nation - One Year On; Department of Health, Wellington House, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8UG.

(Photograph and graph omitted)