It's the parents, stupid

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The Independent Online

This newspaper is prejudiced. As a rule, we are not in favour of banning things. Some of our readers were disappointed that we dissented from the increasingly fashionable view that smoking should be prohibited in all public enclosed spaces. With the caveat that people who work in smoky environments do so voluntarily or have some protection, we believe in allowing people to choose which pubs, restaurants or casinos to visit. We therefore commend John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, on the balance he seems to have struck in his White Paper on public health, to be published shortly. As we report today, one of its central proposals is a curb on the television advertising of junk food aimed at children.

This newspaper is prejudiced. As a rule, we are not in favour of banning things. Some of our readers were disappointed that we dissented from the increasingly fashionable view that smoking should be prohibited in all public enclosed spaces. With the caveat that people who work in smoky environments do so voluntarily or have some protection, we believe in allowing people to choose which pubs, restaurants or casinos to visit. We therefore commend John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, on the balance he seems to have struck in his White Paper on public health, to be published shortly. As we report today, one of its central proposals is a curb on the television advertising of junk food aimed at children.

Mr Reid argues that adults have the right to live their lives in the way that they choose, even if it risks their health, provided they do not put others' lives in danger by their actions. But he is not a pure liberal, because he accepts that government has a responsibility to encourage, to provide information and to make sure it is meaningful. And he also accepts that some groups of people are not in a position to make informed choices, and that in the case of children, for example, the threshold for government intervention is lower.

However, government intervention can take several forms, and Mr Reid intends to ask the food, advertising and television companies to agree their own rules to restrict junk food advertising, with the threat of legislation if they do not. Both in the principles behind his approach and in the mechanism chosen, Mr Reid has struck an intelligent balance. The main responsibility for ensuring that children eat reasonably well and get enough exercise lies with parents and, as they grow older, with children themselves. But there is a public interest in trying to ensure that the pressures that tend to ill health under which these responsibilities are borne are minimised.

Furthermore, pace Antony Worrall Thompson, who writes critically of the Government's plans for this paper, the Health Secretary's reluctance to legislate is to be applauded. It should not be for the Department of Health to lay down rules detailing precisely what constitutes junk, or when and how it can be advertised. Far better for the Government to set out principles and use the threat of legislation to concentrate other minds on agreeing a set of detailed rules that command broad public support.

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