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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

MPs from all parts of the commons supported a Bill to prohibit the sale of high fat and high sugar content food in vending machines in schools.

Among those sponsoring the measure, introduced by Jon Owen Jones, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, was Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent MP for Wyre Forest, who was elected to parliament after campaigning purely on health issues.

The Schools (Vending Machines) Bill has the support of the National Union of Teachers, the British Heart Foundation and the Royal College of Physicians. Mr Jones said it resulted from his conducting a lengthy investigation into obesity with the commons select committee on health. Other countries had tried similar measures or variants on it.

Brandishing a can of Coca-Cola, Mr Jones said that, depending on whether American or British teaspoons were used, the carbonated water drink contained seven to 10 teaspoons of sugar.

'We know that many children drink three or four such cans in the course of a day. What responsible parent would permit their child to take 28 teaspoonfuls of sugar in one day?' he asked.

'Yet in our schools, children are given the means, the opportunity and the time to do just that'.

There was evidence that parents were worried by this. An ICM poll last year showed that 70% would support the banning of fizzy drink vending machines in schools. At a time when parents and health professionals were increasingly worried about obesity and nutrition, junk food in schools was rapidly becoming an anachronism, said Mr Jones.

Since 1982 the number of British children who were overweight or obese had more than doubled, and 10% of today's six-year-olds were obese. The chief medical officer for England (Liam Donaldson) had called childhood obesity 'a public health time bomb'. If present trends continued, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese - according to some experts, a conservative estimate, commented Mr Jones.

He said:'I do not claim that vending machines in schools are the only, or even the primary, cause of our problem. The rise in childhood obesity clearly reflects broader changes in lifestyle and diet in our society. However, vending machines whose primary products are fizzy, sugary drinks, crisps and chocolate - which the Americans describe with the term 'foodstuffs of no nutritonal value' - are a clear example of how schools, and by extension the state, allow the problem to go unchecked and are seen to promote and encourage those products.

'The fact that we cannot do everything to solve the problem at once does not mean that we should do nothing'.

Several US states and school districts had proposed or passed legislation similar to this Bill, added Mr Jones. All over the world such proposals were being considered. In Canada, from September this year Coca-Cola and Pepsi will remove all their fizzy drinks from vending machines in schools and replace them with healthier products.

'I am sure that they are doing that to pre-empt legislation. In this country, Coca-Cola has just announced that it will remove all advertising on its vending machines in schools. It is clearly worried about what the government might do, and I hope that it has good reason to be', declared Mr Jones.

The Bill was given a formal first reading. It is unlikely to make progress because of lack of parliamentary time, but it will add to the growing pressure for measures to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy eating and lifestyles.

Hansard 24 Feb 2004: Column 154 - 156

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