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A watchdog group that monitors Britain's food and health is weighing proposals that could ban or restrict ads that target children.
The reason: British kids, like those in the United States, are getting fatter and fatter.
The urge to do something about the problem could have major ramifications for companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Pepsico to McDonald's, which are fighting against regulations on several fronts.
The debate in Britain also is a signal that obesity --- a big worry in the United States --- has become a key issue in much of Europe as well.
The latest wrinkle involves the Food Standards Agency, or FSA, an independent group set up by British Parliament in 2000. Next year, the group will take obesity recommendations to the government. Among other things, it's considering: > A ban on food advertisements aimed at preschool-age children. > Banning the use of cartoon characters or children's TV stars in ads aimed at kids. > Requiring healthier options in vending machines at publicly funded venues.
Some regulations even could put a crimp on whether companies like Coke can sponsor certain sports teams.
In a statement, FSA Chairman John Krebs said the group wants a "wide debate" on ways to get obesity under control. At the moment, 15 percent of English 15-year-olds are obese, while 8.5 percent of 6-year-olds are too fat.
While restrictions on marketing are now under consideration in Britain, they're already in place in other parts of Europe. In Sweden, for example, the government has had a ban on TV advertising to kids under 12 since 1991.
Those in the food industry generally oppose plans to restrict marketing, whether in the United States or abroad.
Coke spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus said the beverage maker plans to speak its mind as Britain's FSA seeks comments in the coming months.
"We have a history of responsible marketing," Bjorhus said, including a self-imposed prohibition against ads aimed at children under 12. "We believe that self-regulation is the best approach."
The British debate surfaced just as the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the United States jumped on the marketing issue as well.
In a report, the activist group --- unlike the FSA, it isn't government-connected --- charges that marketing food to kids "undermines parental authority and helps fuel the epidemic of childhood obesity."
CSPI's report claims "now is the time" for the U.S. government to set new standards on marketing foods to kids.
Because the FSA is sanctioned by the British government, its activities are getting close scrutiny. Media outlets in Britain have carried several reports about possible limitations on marketing to kids.
The FSA notes that it hasn't decided what to recommend. But the group intends to do something, because of the "health time bomb" that exists in the United Kingdom.
"Doing nothing is not an option," Krebs said.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution