Poor diet is robbing pupils of life years, a conference on childhood obesity heard. David Henderson reports
It is "nothing short of immoral" to advertise junk food directly to young children on television, Colin Waine, a member of the national obesity forum, told a national conference on childhood obesity in Edinburgh.
Professor Waine, a former senior health official in the north-east of England and a visiting professor at Sunderland University, said children had no powers of discrimination to challenge influential advertising and make informed choices. Parents said they often could do little to counter the negative effects.
He was quickly supported by Rosemary Hignett, head of food labelling and standards at the Food Standards Agency, who called for wider action on the advertising of high fat, sugar and salt products, especially on TV.
Research had shown that strong food promotion influenced children's eating patterns. Studies revealed "striking conclusions".
Mrs Hignett appealed for all branding of school vending machines to be removed if they peddled junk food and drink. The school environment had to protect children. Research had also proved that children would take healthy options when they were available.
Professor Waine said that government had restrained choice on road safety, tobacco and alcohol and should now consider widening its intervention. "The junk food industry is robbing people of life years and the Government through its actions is providing the getaway car," he told the conference.
Scottish children were the third fattest in Europe: one in three 12-year-olds is overweight and one in five is now classed as obese. This would have "huge implications" for their health. In the short term, children who were overweight and obese were two to four times as likely to be victimised, and obese children themselves could become bullies. A study at Leeds University was showing that 14 per cent of 12-year-olds and 18 per cent of nine-year-olds had experience of fatness teasing. They suffered from lower self-esteem.
In the longer term, overweight children were far more likely to develop serious illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, in their thirties.
These used to be illnesses associated with late middle age and the elderly.
America with its "obesity epidemic" was already showing the characteristics and Scotland would follow.
"We are in danger of creating a generation of children who will have a shorter life than their parents," the professor said.
Mrs Hignett said studies had shown that children watched an average of 13 hours 35 minutes of TV a week, but only a quarter of that was children's television. But 40 per cent of the advertisements during children's TV came from the food industry and 70 per cent of that was for sweets, fast foods, pre-sugared breakfast cereals, savoury snacks and soft drinks.
Strategies to counter the increasing trends of snacking, convenience food and eating out - where high fat, sugar and salt contents could not be controlled - required a broad attack that included families, schools, shops, restaurants and the media.
Gillian Kynoch, the national food and health co-ordinator or food tsar, emphasised that life expectancy in Scotland remained the lowest in western Europe despite recent improvements. Two-thirds of deaths were still down to cardiovascular disease, cancer and strokes.
She said fruit and vegetables should be subsidised to allow more people to eat more of them.
LEADER 26 MARJ ADAMS 27
* Two-thirds of the 200-strong audience supported free,healthy school meals for all children and 88 per cent want fizzy drinks banned in school,an interactive session at Monday's conference revealed.