Junk food advertising and sponsorship aimed at children should be banned as part of efforts to tackle the U.K.'s obesity epidemic, doctors' leaders there said.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that about one million youngsters under the age of 16 in the U.K. were obese, and this was likely to increase in the future.
A new BMA report, “Preventing Childhood Obesity,” recommends a program of radical action in a bid to reduce the number of overweight and obese youngsters.
The BMA's Board of Science said school meals should adhere to strict guidelines on sugar and fat content, and all unhealthy food and drink vending machines in schools should be banned.
The report said, "There should be a ban on the advertising of unhealthy foodstuffs, including inappropriate sponsorship programs, targeted at schoolchildren."
The authors said that celebrities and children's TV characters should only endorse healthy products that meet nutritional criteria laid down by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
They also said that supermarkets should consider price promotions -- such as two for one offers -- for healthy food instead of chocolates, sweets and crisps.
Other recommendations include a sustained public education campaign by the government to improve parents' and children's understanding of the benefits of healthy living.
The report said the government should subsidize the cost of fruit and vegetables to encourage healthy eating.
All manufacturers should be legally obliged to reduce salt, sugar and fat in pre-prepared meals to an agreed level within a defined timeframe, the authors said.
Increased funding and improved access to sport and recreation facilities in schools and communities were also recommended.
The BMA said that around the world 22 million children under five were severely overweight.
Soaring rates of obesity have led to an increase in childhood Type 2 diabetes.
In time, the problem will also lead to more cases of heart disease, osteoarthritis and some cancers, the report said.
The BMA said there was no precise figure of how much obesity costs the NHS, but every year the health service spent at least £2 billion ($3.7 billion) treating the ill health caused by poor diet.
If current trends continue, estimates indicate a minimum of one fifth of boys and a third of girls will be obese by 2020.
This meant the cost to the NHS was likely to increase unless action was taken to halt the spread of the problem, the report said.
Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said, "It is madness that at a time when children are being told to eat less and do more exercise, they go into school and are sold fizzy drinks and doughnuts and do less than two hours exercise a week.
"Children are being bombarded with mixed messages.
"On one hand, they might learn about healthy eating at school, and then, they go home and spend hours watching TV and see celebrities eating hamburgers, crisps or drinking fizzy drinks.
"Children and parents are surrounded by the marketing of unhealthy cereals, snacks and processed meals -- this has to stop."
Nathanson said the report focused on preventing childhood obesity.
"There is no room for complacency, and it's essential that the government listens to what doctors are saying.
"We know that parents want to do the best for their children, and we hope this report will help them to do that," she said.
Stateside, companies are modifying their child-focused marketing efforts. General Mills announced a new children's television health advertising initiative. "Choose Breakfast" is General Mills' largest children's advertising effort ever in terms of its annual reach of kids. The campaign is non-branded and communicates the benefits of breakfast to children.
"The new Choose Breakfast advertising campaign is unique in the industry because it is the first non-branded advertising campaign of this scale. We'll reach more kids with Choose Breakfast than any other child effort we've done before," said General Mills’ chief marketing officer Mark Addicks. "We have taken our insights on how to communicate health to kids and have developed advertising that will impact children in a very positive way."
"This is exactly what a leader in the food industry should be doing," said Elizabeth Lascoutx, vice president and director of the Children's Advertising Review Unit. "Ensuring that positive, non-branded health messages like Choose Breakfast are being delivered to children is not only responsible, but commendable."
Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of breakfast to school performance. The results of a two-year study conducted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Education Achievement indicate that when students started the day with a nutritious breakfast, test scores increased over a period of time and discipline problems dropped up to 50%. Yet, according to a survey from Datamonitor, one in four Americans starts the day without breakfast, and the number of missed breakfasts is forecast to grow by 11.5% over the next five years.
"We believe cereal is one of the best breakfasts a kid can eat," said Eric Lucas, General Mills vice president of marketing for Big G cereals. "It is low in fat and is nutrient-rich for the number of calories it has per serving. Importantly, if it's any General Mills Big G cereal, it also provides either a good or excellent source of whole grain."
Eating cereal for breakfast also has a healthy impact on body weight. Independent research has consistently shown that frequent cereal eaters, both adults and children, have healthier body weights.
"Those who would criticize the sugar in presweetened cereals need to look at the science," said Susan Crockett, Ph.D., Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition. "Cereal, both presweetened and non sweetened, makes up less than 5% of a child's daily sugar intake. But, in return, a bowl of cereal with milk provides a wide variety of important nutrients including calcium, iron, folic acid and B vitamins all for about 120 calories per serving."
Lucas said the ads talk about health in ways that are motivating to kids and resonate with them.
"The ads show kids in aspirational, fun settings with the health benefits of breakfast articulated in kid terms of 'think fast,' 'have power' and 'get going,'" said Lucas. "The advertising will inspire kids and is in line with how kids process communication around health benefits."
The campaign will run for a full year, reaching more than 80% of children nationwide. The 10-second spots will be paired with 20-second versions of General Mills’ kid advertising. The spots will run in rotation on all General Mills kid-oriented cereal brands, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Trix. Ads for cereals such as Honey Nut Cheerios advertised on kids programming also will be tagged with the Choose Breakfast ads.
The advertising campaign will be supported with kid-friendly health and fitness-related messaging on more than 300 million boxes of cereal this year and on the company's websites.
Also launching is a standalone website, www.choosebreakfast.com, with more content designed to engage kids on the benefits of eating breakfast. It will invite children and parents to take a pledge to eat a nutritious breakfast and be active every day.
"We are excited about the opportunity to use our expertise to communicate important health messages to kids in their terms," said Addicks. "Our goal is to not have kids walk away from breakfast in the morning. It is our job to communicate the benefits -- the opportunity for a healthier body weight and to perform better in school -- in a way that will resonate with kids and make a difference."