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Britain's multi-million pound food industry has received a private government guarantee that there will be no ban on food commercials shown during children's TV time, despite soaring rates of obesity among the young.<br />Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell told a meeting of food manufacturers and advertisers last week that there were no plans to outlaw food adverts on children's TV. She said that the overall quality of children's programming might fall if there were less advertising revenue available for TV companies.<br />But her comments have been greeted with dismay by leading nutritionists and Labour MPs who have urged Ministers to start restricting the aggressive marketing tactics used to sell cereals, junk food, crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolate.<br />One in three children in Britain is now categorised as overweight and one in nine obese, statistics which have leaped in the past decade. Doctors have warned that diabetes and heart disease will increase among teenagers, leading to thousands of premature deaths and disabilities in the next generation.<br />Professor Philip James, a former government adviser and international expert on obesity, said: 'I'm dismayed by this. We are condemning our children to be manipulated by industry, as part of public policy.<br />'All the market analysis shows us that advertisers explicitly target pre-school children, and we know that it works because children are very aware of food brands. This is a very retrograde step.'<br />Jowell, who was embroiled in 1997 in the row over a ban on tobacco advertising, made her views about food adverts clear last Wednesday as she attended the launch of Media Smart, a food industry 'educational' initiative aimed at making schoolchildren more aware of how advertising works.<br />At the private gathering of industry executives at The Atrium, New Labour's favourite restaurant near Westminster, she gave a speech supporting the new initiative, which is backed by Kellogg's and Procter and Gamble, two of the world's biggest food companies. Afterwards she privately reassured them that a ban on TV advertising towards children was 'not on the agenda'.<br />Martin Paterson, deputy director-general of the Food and Drink Federation, told The Observer: 'Her view was that the quality of children's programmes would undoubtedly suffer if advertising revenues were removed from that sector. It (the programme contents) would have to be cheaper stuff.'<br />Paul Jackson, chairman of Media Smart, confirmed this, adding: 'At the top level, both here and in Brussels, people increasingly feel that a ban is not the solution. The government is saying to us, we are prepared to work with you in a self-regulatory environment; otherwise Ofcom (the regulators) will step in.'<br />The government has remained publicly uncommitted over the issue of a ban. Under pressure to do something to encourage healthy eating, they have introduced free fruit into primary schools and have commissioned the Food Standards Agency to carry out a review to look at the impact marketing has on children's diet.<br />But 130 MPs signed an early day motion earlier this year, asking the government to bring in a ban on all advertising to pre-school children. Debra Shipley, the Labour MP for Stourbridge who put down the motion, said yesterday: 'I'm astonished and very upset by Tessa Jowell's failure to understand what is at stake here. Do we really want TV programmes if the only way to get them is to risk brainwashing our children with the sorts of products that leave them exposed to a lifetime of ill health?'<br />Campaigners believe there is a strong and direct link between the smart, glossy, funny ads - featuring appealing characters such as Coco the monkey to promote Coco Pops, Ronald McDonald the clown and Kellogg's Tony the Tiger - and children exercising 'pester power' to make their parents buy those brands.<br />Many children now have TVs in their bedrooms and, on a Saturday morning, there will be between 50 and 60 different food ads on a commercial TV station. In Britain, food that is high in fat and sugar is being marketed at children as never before.<br />Last year, advertisers spent £161 million on selling chocolate and confectionery to the country - much of it directed not at adults but at the younger age group. However, the industry does not produce figures showing how much of it is targeted at children, because, they argue, parents also watch the adverts.<br />Industry figures show a further £34m went towards bombarding the public with ads for crisps and snacks, compared with just £10.2m spent promoting frozen and fresh vegetables, and a relatively paltry £5m on fruit. Much of the money is spent on designing and airing the TV commercials.<br />A Department of Culture, Media and Sports spokesman said last night: 'Advertising is just a fact of life, and Tessa Jowell was saying that there is not going to be a blanket ban on children's adverts.'<br />He said that the important thing was to make sure that they [the children] can 'deconstruct the ads', using schemes such as Media Smart to show them how to become more critical, even cynical, about the adverts to which they are exposed.<br />The food industry, under attack for its slick campaigns promoting junk food, denies that it is responsible for the growing levels of obesity, and blames cultural shifts and the lack of physical activity among the young. It argues that total calorific intake has actually decreased among children in the past 30 years.<br />