EDITORIAL: Adland could offer remedy to obesity

Obesity is giving advertising a bad name. Britain is becoming a nation of cholesterol-filled fatties dicing with death from heart attacks, strokes or cancer and advertising must take much of the blame for it.

Or so the health lobby would have everyone believe.

Faced with such relentless and not always fair criticism, it's no wonder that snack food manufacturers and their agencies are usually vilified as the problem when they could be part of the solution.

At least Sport England, which is responsible for promoting the Government's sporting objectives, recognises advertising's potential to influence the situation positively by shortlisting four agencies to develop a national anti-obesity campaign. It would be churlish in the extreme not to wish it success. Whether it has a realistic chance of reducing society's collective waistline is highly debatable, particularly since obesity is predominant among poor families who have always proved stubbornly resistant to what they consider "nannying" messages.

The scale of the problem is huge in every respect. Obesity is said to be responsible for 31,000 premature deaths in the UK each year; one in 12 children is obese by the age of six, almost 24 million adults in the IK are overweight too- and the number is rising. The issue is a health "timebomb" which is expected to cost a beleaguered NHS £3.6 billion a year by the end of the decade. These statistics are alarming enough to ensure that the obesity problem will haunt the ad industry for many years to come.

Obesity is a complex issue with more than one trigger and the solution isn't helped by the lack of a joined-up Government response to it. The Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency and Ofcom are all grappling with the problem. Meanwhile, ministers confine themselves to a handful of pilot projects rather than a broad scale approach. A £77 million scheme to give all four- to six-year-olds a piece of fruit every school day will have little impact on diet and has been rightly condemned as a ludicrous waste of money when some schools don't even have clean drinking fountains.

The fact is officialdom and society's changing habits have fuelled the problem of obesity far more than advertising. The growing sales of council-owned playgrounds to developers, the prevailing car-dominated and couch potato culture and working parents who can't be bothered to cook and opt for takeaways are the main reasons for the obesity explosion.

With Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, having recognised the pointlessness of a ban on snack food advertising, perhaps it is time for the ministers to recognise the bond companies such as Cadbury and Coca-Cola have with their consumers and to use it to their advantage.