Close-Up: Live Issue - How bad is the obesity White Paper?

The Choosing Health White Paper bears no good news for advertisers.

While health pressure groups may have welcomed the Government's Choosing Health White Paper, which aims to tackle the growing problems of obesity, binge drinking and sexual disease, the implications for the ad industry could be extremely serious.

The paper sets out a number of recommendations that the Government hopes will turn Britain into a healthier nation by encouraging behavioural change.

Along with measures including the clearer labelling of food and the banning of smoking in public, the paper also proposes dramatic changes to the way "junk food" is promoted to young people.

Although the paper does not go as far as a total ban on ads for junk food - defined as being high in fat, sugar or salt - it does recommend the imposition of a voluntary code on TV ads so that they are not screened before 9pm.

The White Paper gives the industry three years to put its house in order and, if it is not then satisfied enough has been done, the Government plans formal regulation.

The TV companies, which earn more than £220 million from food advertising before the 9pm watershed, including £10 million from Cadbury's high-profile ITV Coronation Street sponsorship, potentially have the most to lose, but the ban could extend to press and posters. Posterscope estimates that outdoor companies take around £60 million in food revenue.

It is now up to Ofcom to take industry soundings on the White Paper, and the consensus is that the final outcome will be a compromise much different from the Government's initial proposals.

But would change - either voluntary or legislative - make any difference?

From the example of other European countries, it would seem not. Norway and Belgium have on average three or four times fewer food ads per hour than Germany, Denmark, Finland and The Netherlands, yet suffer from higher levels of obesity.

Nonetheless, the IPA, which has been involved in negotiations with the Government about developing a positive lifestyle campaign, has welcomed the paper, but questions whether total censorship would be justifiable.

Marina Palomba, the IPA's director of legal affairs, says: "While the IPA embraces the need to protect vulnerable groups, there is little or no evidence that the proposed restrictions would have the desired effect on obesity levels. Indeed, bans are not only ineffective but can be counter-productive, damaging consumer choice, information and healthy competition."

Established food brands would not necessarily suffer from an advertising ban. As has already been witnessed in the tobacco industry, it would be extremely difficult for new brands to find a foothold in the market under such circumstances, while the big manufacturers could save money through not advertising while slowly pushing up prices for consumers.

Advertising drives competition. Without it, and in the absence of a body such as the alcohol industry's Portman Group, which promotes sensible drinking, the true causes of obesity may fail to be addressed.

And if the worst comes to the worst and TV, press and poster ads are restricted, advertisers may well be forced to fight back via the internet.

To prevent this happening, the ad industry needs to embark on some pretty hefty lobbying.

- Leader, p24

CREATIVE - John O'Keeffe, executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"I have read over recent weeks a number of alarmist 'we're all doomed'-type articles from, presumably, self-interested adfolk appearing to suggest that a blanket ban on food advertising was imminent. This would be absurd.

"If, as has also been suggested, the White Paper says nothing more controversial than that 'junk' food should not be aimed at children during children's TV hours, I think it sounds perfectly reasonable.

"Perhaps the answer is a little more education, actually in the classroom; a bit more choice in 'tuck' shops; maybe, dare I say it, a few less hours in front of the television and a few more with a football. By the way, who sold off all the playing fields?"

STRATEGIST - Tony Manwaring, communications planning director, Initiative

"Advertising is picking up the bill for Labour's headline-motivated policies. The only surprise is that we are surprised.

"Historically, junk food advertising has been blatant, brutal in execution and patronising. We should now seek more balanced communication, through the adoption of covert brands and channels that allow engagement and education.

Digital media should benefit, with less formulaic, more imaginative and, I suspect, more expensive contacts as a result. While lobbying should continue, a parallel track of intelligent contemporary communication, that takes the 'junk' out of the advertising, must be promoted."

LOBBYIST - Jeremy Preston, director, Food Advertising Unit

"The advertising provisions in the White Paper indicate that much of the detail on the way codes will change still needs to be agreed.

"The task ahead is for the ad industry to work with regulators in producing updated codes that are evidence-based, proportionate and effective. For this, it is vital to learn from the Government what success means and how it will be measured - changes in codes can deliver changes in the way foods are promoted, but will not be able to deliver changes in diets.

"We are looking forward to discussing the detail with the Government, both in regards to reviewing the codes and in how we may support the promotion of healthy lifestyles."

TRADE BODY - Ian Twinn, director of public affairs, ISBA

"We all need to agree that there is an issue with obesity and that the Government is right to want to address it. But I think that this White Paper doesn't achieve it - the Government is labouring under a mistaken view of what's going on.

"If it wants to have a long-term healthy-eating goal and have fuel input and energy output balanced, then food manufacturers and trade bodies can help reinforce this. What we're after is an equal partnership and we're trying to get engaged with the Government on this.

"What is also deeply worrying is that this Government doesn't understand how commercial television is funded."

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