Editorial: Act now on obesity or we will pay later

When the BBC decides that it will no longer allow the Teletubbies, the Tweenies, the Fimbles and other well-known characters from its children's shows to advertise sweets and chocolates, it's time to sit up and take notice.

Bruised, battered, humiliated and beset by management angst it may be, yet the corporation still enjoys a special if ambiguous place in the life of the country. On the one hand, it has embraced commercialism to such an extent that critics accuse it of abusing its public service remit.

On the other, it remains what it always was - a mirror of public moods and attitudes.

Now the BBC has concluded that the short-term effect on its revenues must be set against risk of long-term damage to its reputation should it be seen to be showing a cynical disregard for the nation's health. Commercial broadcasters would be well advised to follow suit lest what has always been consumers' confidence in and enjoyment of advertising is irreparably damaged.

The obesity issue may well prove to be the litmus test of whether or not the industry can show sufficient sensitivity and restraint to sustain the public's confidence in it.

What's clear is that the problem, which is now threatening to reach epidemic proportions, will have an impact on advertisers and their agencies for years to come. Obesity is predicted to cause as many deaths as cancer within a decade, while levels of obesity in Britain are twice as high as they were eight years ago.

Such statistics will rightly increase pressure both on advertisers and their agencies to be aware of their moral obligations. In doing so, many will also come to realise that being seen to be acting responsibly is vital to their commercial interests.

Failure to do so could turn obesity into advertising's Trojan Horse, the vehicle by which those who would wish to curb the industry's activities in a number of areas could pour through its defences.

Only last week, the European Parliament agreed to postpone the introduction of a health and nutrition claims directive, which would have banned the advertising of certain foods with high fat, sugar or salt content, after the European Food Safety Authority claimed that it already had more work than it could handle. While industry lobbyists will be relieved to have seen off this threat for the time being, they are well aware that it's only a matter of time before the next one appears.

If the industry is serious about preserving its freedom, then short-term pain for long-term gain may be the only answer.

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