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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 05:49 GMT 06:49 UK
Will it make a difference?
Obese man
One in four Britons is obese
The Commons health committee has called for urgent action to tackle the growing threat of obesity.

But are its recommendations enough to defuse the impending time-bomb?

The MPs who sit on the House of Commons health committee have spent almost a year investigating obesity.

They have interviewed 64 witnesses, read countless statements and clocked up thousands of airmiles in their quest to find the solution to Britain's "obesity time-bomb".

Their 146-page report includes stinging criticism of the government's record to date and 69 recommendations on what now needs to be done.

These include proposals to set up a new labelling system for food, lessons for school children on healthy eating, restrictions on food advertising and a national campaign to try to get people to exercise more.

Ticking bomb

But are they enough to diffuse the ticking bomb?

To have any impact at all, the recommendations must first be accepted and implemented by the government.

So far, Health Secretary John Reid has said only that the findings will be fed into the White Paper on public health to be published later this year.

Nevertheless, the report is being seen as something of a watershed in the fight against obesity.

The main recommendations
Traffic light system for labelling food
Health education campaign to highlight the risks
Healthy eating lessons for school-children
Voluntary ban on junk food ads targeting children
Snack vending machines to be removed from schools
National walking strategy
More surgery for obese people on the NHS
"This inquiry has already sparked huge interest and has raised awareness of obesity in the UK to unprecedented levels," says Dr Susan Jebb, head of nutrition and health research at the Medical Research Council.

"The report marks the end of the beginning and we must now work to ensure that its recommendations are translated into real actions."

The committee is clear on what those actions should be. But it is also clear that the war on obesity must be fought on many fronts.

The report calls, in the first instance, for a more interventionist approach from government.

For instance, the MPs want a new national walking strategy to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

They also want a new law to be introduced requiring manufacturers to stick clear labels on their food showing whether they are high or low in calories.

The Co-op supermarket chain already has such a system in place. Tesco has announced plans to trial a similar scheme.

"I think there is every reason to believe that clearer labelling will help," says Dr Jebb.

"Many people find themselves thwarted because they do not know what is in their food and it's not just in supermarkets, it's when they are eating out too."

Health campaign

The MPs also want a national health education campaign to warn people about the risks of being obese.

"Education and public health campaigns do work," says Dr Jebb. "What we need is a clear education programme with simple consistent messages. I think it will help."

We are trying to change society's entire approach to food
Dr Susan Jebb,
Medical Research Council
The MPs insist that industry also has an important role to play.

While the report stops short of calling for an outright ban on unhealthy food ads, it makes clear that industry should do more to improve eating habits.

It suggests that manufacturers may want to consider a voluntary ban on junk food ads targeted at children.

It also calls for an end to celebrity-endorsement of less healthy foods and for super-sized products to be phased out.

"What we eat is strongly driven by the products that are available and how they are marketed," says Dr Jebb.

"Companies have a role to play not only in the composition of these products but also how they are promoted.

"They have been in denial about this for a long time but I think they are beginning to change."

The health committee is also adamant that schools could be doing more to tackle obesity. It wants snack vending machines removed, more physical activity and new health eating lessons for pupils.

In addition, the MPs want the NHS to step up its efforts to fight obesity. They want special obesity clinics and more surgery for people who are obese.

"We are trying to change society's entire approach to food," says Dr Jebb.

"We are trying to turn back the clock and change habits that have developed over many years.

"It is not easy but if we can change these habits then we will have an impact."




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