One may or may not agree with the recent criticism of Aamir Khan for promoting colas, but the fact remains that there is now a growing body of opinion against such heavily sweetened fizzy drinks in particular and fast food in general.

Two years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) prepared a global strategy to counter what is known in medical jargon as "diet-related non-communicable diseases". These include heart diseases, certain types of cancer, diabetes and, last but by no means least, obesity. The strategy addresses diet, physical activity and health.

Recently, the Archdiocesan Board of Education, which runs 150 schools in Mumbai and surrounding regions, vetoed the sale of aerated drinks in their premises and substituted fruit juice and buttermilk.

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To promote this strategy, the WHO has been examining a range of interventions that possess the potential to tackle the global rise of such diseases. One of the key points on the agenda is the marketing of food and soft drinks, especially in relation to children. Even Walt Disney has now stopped franchising its comic book characters shaped as various fast food delights as "Happy Meals" at McDonald's in the United States. The "mother of all animators" wants to keep at arm's length what is now being perceived as a dangerous diet, one which turns children into obese adults.

In March, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on the sale of all soft drinks within school premises. However, in typical bureaucratic fashion, the Secretary (School Education) in the state government in turn passed on the proposal to the health department. This surprised the FDA Commissioner, Rakesh Kumar, who said that the FDA had already provided enough data for a ban on soft drinks in schools.

The Indian Soft Drink Manufacturers Association, which includes Coca-Cola and Pepsi, reacted to the ban proposal saying that "the industry has always recognised that schools are a very special place. Our industry listens closely to parents and local school officials and ensures that the range of beverages sold in their schools reflects their wishes. We plan to initiate a dialogue with officials to clarify all their concerns, if any."

However, some Mumbai schools -- St Stanislaus, Bombay Scottish and Poddar School to name three -- have already stopped stocking colas in their canteens. But Maharashtra's FDA, which is taking a very pro-active stand on this issue, says this won't do. The FDA does not want to leave a ban to the individual choice of schools, and prefers a blanket ban instead.

More recently, the Archdiocesan Board of Education, which runs 150 schools in Mumbai and surrounding regions, has vetoed the sale of aerated drinks in their premises and substituted fruit juice and buttermilk. According to a spokesperson, the Board is regularly informing children about the harmful effects of colas and is confident that parents would see the merit of such a ban.

Worldwide moves to protect children

There is plenty of action in the international arena. In the US, former President Bill Clinton recently helped negotiate a deal to ban calorie-laden sodas from school campuses, although this only applies to the elementary level. According to the US' Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, "Obesity is one of the major health challenges facing the nation, especially our younger generation. Without early prevention and detection, obesity can have troubling consequences such as diabetes and heart and vascular diseases." The US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study of the past three decades shows that rates of obesity for American children between six and 11 years old have trebled. Also, it has more than doubled for children between two to five years and adolescents between 12 to 19 years. The same source estimates that between 1999 and 2002, 16% of children in the US were overweight.

The prestigious US National Academy of Sciences has just released a study to confirm how food marketing adversely affects what children eat, all the more so in a country which is saturated with TV. There are six marketing methods identified: TV advertising, in-school marketing, sponsorship, product placement, Internet marketing and sales promotions. Given the excessive emphasis in the US on consumer choice, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are looking for a range of actions, which include self-regulation, "so that consumers can make healthy food choices".

For it's part, the WHO cites how the food and beverage industry has viewed children and adolescents as a major market force and are now the target of intense advertising. They are interested in this segment because the youth of today are the consumers of tomorrow. Multiple techniques and channels are employed to reach this category, beginning with toddlers, to build brands and influence the purchase of foods. These are predominantly high in sugar and fat, which are inconsistent with US dietary recommendations.

The US apart, other countries are acting as well. In Sweden and the province of Quebec in Canada, advertisers are prohibited from targeting children and Italy bans actors who are under 14. Greece has banned the advertising of toys. A children's advertising code has been developed in Ireland, which says that all such ads must show on-screen messages for products like cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolate that such items "should be eaten in moderation, as part of a balanced diet".

Ireland has also clamped down on "children's heroes", including celebrities (Aamir and Shahrukh, please note!) and sports stars to promote food and drink products, unless the ad is part of a public health or education campaign. Interestingly enough, how many remember how P Gopichand, the five-time national badminton award winner, refused to sponsor a cola drink; his refusal is all the more commendable because he could not have had too many sponsorships coming his way, given the fact that badminton takes a back seat in the sports arena.

Now, activists in the US, UK, Australia, Brazil and Thailand are calling for a ban on fast food advertising. They have labeled these products the "new tobacco" and blamed advertisers for creating a "toxic commercial environment". The US has drafted a bill to tax foods high in sugar, fat and salt as well as the TV ads that promote them. In the UK, public opinion has forced advertisers to use promotions which encourage children to make or request repeat purchases (free gifts, token collect etc) only for healthier foods.

With such pressure, food companies in these countries are taking some action. Two years ago, Kellogg's reduced the sugar in its Frosties breakfast cereal. Coca-Cola announced changes in vending practices, including branding and content of machines. Kraft has capped sizes of portions and ended marketing in schools. Mars has removed certain fats from products. McDonalds itself introduced salads, fruit and milk with Happy Meals. And as referred to earlier, under McDonalds' $100 million a year agreement with Disney, although there are McDonald's outlets in all its theme parks, no Disney characters can be shown eating such food – which is surely comment enough.

The International Chamber of Commerce has put in place self-regulatory codes which state: "Advertisements should not exploit the inexperience or credulity of children…(they) should not understate the degree of skill or age level generally required to use or enjoy the products." Terrified about the prospect of outright bans, both the advertising industry and food companies are bending over backwards to promote self-regulation. As they put it, "Freedom to advertise carries certain responsibilities."

Self-regulation, however, is not working in the US. The average child there watches 40,000 commercials a year – just on TV. The Swedish government, by contrast, believes that "Children have the right to safe zones". Advertising aimed at children under 12 is banned on Swedish TV stations, as are direct mail ad campaigns to children under 16. The bans on alcohol and tobacco ads also came into effect in part to protect children.

The Indian reality

Where does all this leave India? If anything, the advertising industry has a stranglehold over all media. With the use of the biggest names in Bollywood, it seems evident that Coke, Pepsi and Lay's chips, among many other items, are here for a long time to come. The media also appears to have thrown in the towel in regulating such advertising, given the cut-throat internal competition between different channels and newspapers.

But for India, an assessment of the gravity of the health threat from fast food to children is also different for another reason. Far from being overweight, the problem in our country is exactly the opposite: nearly half children are under-weight. A new World Bank report on Malnutrition entitled – India's Undernourished Children : a call for Reform and Action talks of underweight children in India being among the highest in the world. Spare a thought for the Ministry of Human Resource Development's recent edict that from June 15, mid-day school meals should compulsorily contain a minimum of 300 calories.

This reality does put the moves to ban soft drinks by select Mumbai city schools and the Maharashtra FDA in perspective. However, merely because the children in the schools that have acted are the privileged ones and a small proportion of country's children, it does not mean that they ought not to take precautions in consuming junk drinks and food. The fact also remains that in Maharashtra, the FDA has recommended a ban on the sale of all soft drinks in schools. Healthy minds, after all, can only thrive in healthy bodies – a message which the health authorities in Maharashtra and other states ought to imbibe as soon as possible.