EDITORIAL: Token efforts won't stop child ads ban

Coca-Cola promises to stop advertising fizzy drinks and Heinz withdraws from promoting its products in schools. Doubtless other companies like them will follow suit. Slowly but surely, the clamour among public and politicians for a ban on food and drink advertising is growing, presenting Coke, Heinz and others with a dilemma.

Do nothing and they're branded cynical and exploitative, accused of putting profits before the nation's health. Do something and they're accused of empty gestures to head off a Government ad ban.

Little matter that such a move will not, in itself, prevent rising levels of obesity among children. Just as banning tobacco advertising may never be proved significantly to have reduced the number of smokers, so outlawing snack food and drink advertising to young children may suffer a similiar fate. Indeed, it may merely force manufacturers to resort to price competition. Nevertheless, ministers may have little option but to curb manufacturers' activities in order to placate public opinion.

Nor will it do the industry much good trying to argue that, after curbing snack food ads, the Government might as well move on to cars, because they sometimes kill people, and financial companies because the UK is turning into a nation of debtors. Politicians need to be seen to be doing something - and that's what matters.

Andrew Brown, the Advertising Association director-general, is understandably concerned that the industry should try to solve the problem and work with the Government to foster healthy lifestyles. This is bound to be tricky.

How can manufacturers who make their money from boosting sales of crisps and fizz credibly convince children to limit their consumption? And with Heinz's plans to launch Fimbles pasta shapes and Coke continuing to sponsor school football, allegations of hypocrisy and double standards will persist.

In the case of Coca-Cola, it's all very well to banish Fanta, Sprite, Coke and Diet Coke from the airwaves during TV shows aimed at the under-12s. But children watch a wide variety of programmes well into the evening.

Coca-Cola and Heinz have attracted lots of headlines for their self-imposed restrictions. But it will take more than these token gestures to convince Whitehall and the country at large that they mean what they say.

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