UK to spend millions on anti-obesity campaign

LONDON (Reuters) - The government is to spend 75 million pounds on a campaign to encourage healthy lifestyles and counter what it calls an obesity epidemic in Britain.

The campaign, to be launched in the summer, will form part of a wider strategy including aspects like food labelling, urban design and the promotion of exercise.

Department of Health officials said it will use simple messages -- such as the “five pieces of fruit and veg a day” slogan -- and be based on research into what actually works to make people change from unhealthy lifestyles.

“Tackling obesity is the most significant public and personal health challenge facing our society,” said Health Secretary Alan Johnson as he launched the 372 million pound cross-government strategy.

The government says two-thirds of British adults are either obese or overweight and that on current trends the proportion could climb to nine in 10 by 2050.

A key focus for the strategy, “Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives,” is to reverse rising obesity among children.

The government has set itself a target of reducing the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels by 2020.

Many children are already being weighed in their first and last years of primary school to help monitor the situation, and the government hopes to make participation universal.

It says the strategy brings together a number of existing initiatives as well as filling in gaps.

It includes 30 million pounds to support the development of healthy towns where residents are encouraged to walk or cycle rather than drive.

There will also be a “Walking into Health” campaign, aiming to get a third of the population in England walking an extra thousand steps -- around a kilometer -- every day by 2012.

The plans include a warning to the food industry that the government will consider legislating if voluntary agreements on reducing unhealthy foods are not successful.

Johnson called on retailers and food producers to end a split over health labels on food and agree to a single scheme.

He said research showed consumers were confused by the different labels used to show levels of salt, sugar and fat. Some stores use red, amber and green “traffic lights,” others prefer a numerical system of guideline daily amounts.

Johnson accepted that many in the industry want to stick to their existing labelling systems, but said he hopes there will be agreement on a single scheme after a review of labelling conducted by the Food Standards Agency watchdog.

The opposition Conservatives dismissed the strategy as a repackaging of earlier announcements.

“Obesity takes a huge toll on people’s lives and is set to cost the NHS tens of billions of pounds a year by 2050,” said Conservative Health Spokesman Andrew Lansley.

“Is this really the best the government can come up with?”

Editing by Steve Addison