Presidents of two royal colleges of medicine urge government to restrict advertising and sponsorship by makers of unhealthy foods and introduce diet health warnings
Leading doctors today weigh in on the debate over the government's role in promoting public health by demanding that ministers impose "fat taxes" on unhealthy food and introduce cigarette-style warnings to children about the dangers of a poor diet.
The demands follow comments last week by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, who insisted the government could not force people to make healthy choices and promised to free businesses from public health regulations.
But senior medical figures want to stop fast-food outlets opening near schools, restrict advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar, and limit sponsorship of sports events by fast-food producers such as McDonald's.
They argue that government action is necessary to curb Britain's addiction to unhealthy food and help halt spiralling rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that the consumption of unhealthy food should be seen to be just as damaging as smoking or binge drinking.
"Thirty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have imagined a ban on smoking in the workplace or in pubs, and yet that is what we have now. Are we willing to be just as courageous in respect of obesity? I would suggest that we should be," said the leader of the UK's children's doctors.
Lansley has alarmed health campaigners by suggesting he wants industry rather than government to take the lead. He said that manufacturers of crisps and confectionery could play a central role in the Change4Life campaign, the centrepiece of government efforts to boost healthy eating and fitness. He has also criticised the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's high-profile attempt to improve school lunches in England as an example of how "lecturing" people was not the best way to change their behaviour.
Stephenson suggested potential restrictions could include banning TV advertisements for foods high in fat, salt or sugar before the 9pm watershed and limiting them on billboards or in cinemas. "If we were really bold, we might even begin to think of high-calorie fast food in the same way as cigarettes - by setting stringent limits on advertising, product placement and sponsorship of sports events," he said.
Such a move could affect firms such as McDonald's, which sponsors the youth coaching scheme run by the Football Association. Fast-food chains should also stop offering "inducements" such as toys, cuddly animals and mobile phone credit to lure young customers, Stephenson said.