Close-Up: Live issue - Health lobby cranks up the pressure

Last week's Food Advertising Unit Conference proved to be a pivotal debate, John Tylee writes.

Baroness Glenys Thornton has sunk her teeth into Britain's food advertisers. And she shows no sign of letting go.

In June, the House of Lords Labour backbencher failed to progress her Bill calling for a 9pm watershed on so-called junk-food advertising. Not even Thornton was surprised by this, claiming that its real purpose was to send "a shot across the bows" of advertisers and broadcasters alike.

Now she is pondering if a second burst of fire might be worthwhile. "I'm deciding whether or not to re-introduce this bill, or something else in another form," she told last week's annual conference of the Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit.

However, few believe Thornton will fare any better this time. The Government wants to judge the new Ofcom rules governing food advertising, introduced less than two months ago, before deciding if further action is necessary.

What disturbs advertisers and agencies is the extent to which lobby groups are rallying to Thornton's cause (including Which?- the consumer watchdog renewed its call for a watershed recently) and the sustained pressure on ministers to tighten the rules further. "I'm not convinced the Ofcom rules are the right ones," Thornton said.

Baroness Peta Buscombe, the Advertising Association's chief executive, and a former Tory frontbench spokesperson in the Lords, is concerned the clamour for action over obesity levels will railroad ministers into precipitate action.

With the Ofcom rules only just in place and major food advertisers working to reduce the salt, fat and sugar content of their products, she wonders if the legislative tide can, in fact, be held back.

"What worries me is if we have time on our side," she told the conference. "There's enormous pressure from the media and others on Gordon Brown and his team to be seen to be doing something. Do we have weeks or months?"

Moreover, there is a belief that the imposition of a 9pm watershed would be a pivotal victory for the health lobbyists. "It would be jumping the gun at a time when the Ofcom regulations haven't been fully rolled out," Jill McDonald, the McDonald's chief marketing officer, commented. "There's no long-term evidence that it would be effective."

Tanya O'Sullivan, five's head of airtime management, agreed. "Let's see what effect the changes have before extending them," she said.

Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, commercial TV's central marketing body, was even more forthright. "We must fight this one," she declared. "Give in to a 9pm watershed and it won't stop there."

Government sources suggest that the sheer complexity of the problem rules out sudden action. Alison Ross, a senior Department of Health executive, said: "We know more has to be done, and we're having talks across Government departments. But there are political imperatives that may impact on what we do."

Nobody is underestimating the scale of the obesity problem. If things carry on as they are, an estimated 40 per cent of the population will be seriously overweight by 2025, which is likely to cost the country around £45 billion.

Professor Sandy Thomas is the director of Foresight, the government-backed organisation that explores strategic solutions for long-term problems, and which last month published the results of a two-year study on obesity. "We're looking at a depressing picture," she admitted. "We're dealing with what is essentially an epidemic."

"The seeds of the problem have been sown," Thornton said. "One in four children is obese. We're sitting on a health timebomb."

Where opinion divides is over whether or not further ad restrictions would make any significant difference, or if the industry is just a target for politicians who should be urging people to take personal responsibility for their health.

For the moment, food advertisers are taking some heart from the Foresight conclusions, which support the argument that the sources of the obesity problem are complex, and that there is no "silver bullet" capable of solving it.

"There can be no quick fix, and initiatives will have to be long term," Thomas insisted. "It would be disproportionate to single out advertising because the evidence against it is fairly weak."

Thomas contends that obesity has its origins in prehistoric times, when eating as much as possible was an essential prerequisite for survival. She said more research was needed into the psychology of why people overeat.

"Because we've seen such a steep rise in obesity, we can expect some major consequences," Thomas, who has warned about a significant effect on people's quality of life as the number of stroke victims and diabetes sufferers grows, said.

"It's not just about eating less and taking more exercise," she explained. "The trouble is that neither the UK nor any other country has produced an effective obesity strategy. Our knowledge of what actually works is very limited."

However, Thomas' suggestion that a strategy would have to be developed by learning what works and what doesn't alarms some in the industry. "I'm scared about things being done just in case they work," Alps commented.

The big question is if food advertisers can put their houses in order rapidly enough to satisfy critics - or if they will ever manage to do so. "An irresponsible part of the industry does what it pleases," Thornton claimed. "That's unacceptable."

For their part, the erstwhile "villains" of the obesity crisis are eager to present themselves as reformed characters. McDonald's claims it can trace the beef in every burger back to the farm that supplied it, and points to huge reductions in the sugar, salt and fat content over the past five years.

It has also sponsored grassroots football coaching and free swimming programmes for children, as well as using the characters from Shrek to promote its fruit and vegetable offerings to children.

"Can we do more?" McDonald asked. "Yes, and we will. I'm not saying we're perfect, but we're taking our responsibilities seriously."

Meanwhile, Kellogg claims to have reduced the salt in some of its biggest brands by 50 per cent. "We're not just talking about new products, but a reformation of existing products," Chris Wermann, the Kellogg communications director for the UK and Northern Europe, said. "It's taking time, but it's getting to the market place."

At the same time, the company's promotions strategy has fundamentally changed, he added. No more toys in boxes.

Whether or not this will satisfy critics remains to be seen. "I'm not a regulator by instinct," Thornton claimed. "But can the food industry get there quickly enough?"

Some, though, accuse the lobbyists of victimising the many for the sins of the few. Calling for more "dispassionate science" and less "ill-informed rubbish", Mike Hughes, the ISBA director-general, asked Thornton: "Why penalise good advertising when there is no compelling evidence from the people you represent?"

Philip Davies, a former Asda marketer turned Tory MP, and a member of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, warned that nothing would satisfy what he called the "health zealots", who would always argue regulation hadn't worked because it wasn't tough enough.

He warned: "We'll get to a stage when an owner of a fish and chip shop tells a customer 'I'm not serving you because you're too fat'."

- Leader, page 24.