Editorial: Ignoring obesity is not a viable option

Like almost two-thirds of the UK population, the upcoming Government report on obesity and what's to be done about it is heading for a serious weight problem. The study will run to ten volumes of evidence gathered over a 12-month period. It will make more than 80 recommendations to tackle what has become one of the most complex problems of the new millennium.

No doubt food manufacturers and their agencies are awaiting the committee's verdict in little more than a week's time with some trepidation. Not without reason. For the first time in history, a new generation of Britons will have a shorter life expectancy than the previous one and advertisers stand accused of fuelling this situation.

For the Government, the obesity issue presents it with a profound dilemma: do too little and it is accused of complacency and allowing vested advertising and marketing interests to walk all over it; do too much and it lays itself open to charges of clumsy social engineering and patronising the population.

Early indications are that the report will eschew a blunt-instrument approach. A good thing, too - a "fat tax", which some suggest could be implemented by extending VAT to cover a wide range of unhealthy foods, isn't practical.

And could there be a more surefire election loser than a situation in which ministers decide what constitutes "good" and "bad" food?

Advertising will always be vulnerable to attack because it's seen as a high-profile personification of the obesity issue. Little matter that everybody knows that bad food isn't the problem, only the excessive consumption of it. Nor that the ten most-watched children's programmes are screened by the ad-free BBC. Also, as last week's Economist-sponsored debate on the pros and cons of a "fat tax" showed, medical opinion on the causes of obesity remains sharply divided.

If food manufacturers are to keep consumers on their side, it's vital they provide them with the information to enable them to make informed choices.

A worthwhile immediate course of action would be to get rid of label gobbledegook and replace it with a simple list of ingredients. In the long term, product formulas will have to change while inspirational advertising works at gradually changing consumer behaviour.

With the industry now facing allegations that it is putting profits before lives, doing nothing isn't an option.

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