Leading doctors today weigh in on the debate over the government's role in promoting public health by demanding that ministers impose "fat taxes" on unhealthy food and introduce cigarette-style warnings to children about the dangers of a poor diet.

    The demands follow comments made last week by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, who insisted the government could not force people to make healthy choices and promised to free businesses from public health regulations.

    But senior medical figures want to stop fast-food outlets opening near schools, restrict advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar, and limit sponsorship of sports events by fast-food producers such an McDonald's.

    They argue that government action is necessary to curb Britain's addiction to unhealthy food and help halt spiraling rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that the consumption of unhealthy food should be seen to be just an damaging as smoking or excessive drinking.

    "Thirty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have imagined a ban on smoking in the workplace or in pubs, and yet that is what we have now. Are we willing to be just as courageous in respect of obesity? I would suggest that we should be," said the leader of the UK's children's doctors.

    Lansley has alarmed health campaigners by suggesting he wants industry rather than government to take the lead. He said that manufacturers of crisps and candies could play a central role in the Change for Life campaign, the centrepiece of government efforts to boost healthy eating and fitness. He has also criticized the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's high-profile attempt to improve school lunches in England as an example of how "lecturing" people was not the best way to change their behaviour.

    Stephenson suggested potential restrictions could include banning TV advertisements for foods high in fat, salt or sugar before 9 p.m. and limiting them on billboards or in cinemas. "If we were really bold, we might even begin to think of high-calorie fast food in the same way as cigarettes- by setting strict limits on advertising, product placement and sponsorship of sport events," he said.

    Such a move could affect firms such as McDonald’s, which sponsors the youth coaching scheme run by the Football Association. Fast-food chains should also stop offering “inducements” such as toys, cute animals and mobile phone credit to lure young customers, Stephenson said.


    Professor Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal Collere of Psychiatrists, said: “If children are taught about the impact that food has on their growth, and that some things can harm, at least information is available up front.”


    He also urged councils to impose “fast-food-free zones” around schools and hospitals-areas within takeaways cannot open.

    A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We need to create a new vision for public health where all of society works together to get healthy and live longer. This includes creating a new ‘responsibility deal’ with business, built on social responsibility, not state regulation. Later this year, we will publish a white paper setting out exactly how we will achieve this. ”

    The food industry will be alarmed that such senior doctors back such radical moves , especially the call to use some of the tough tactics that have been deployed against smoking over the last decade.




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