Soft drinks firms will voluntarily ban advertising to children across the European Union in an effort to curb public criticism amid the bloc's growing obesity problem.
The Union of European Beverages Associations (Unesda) said Wednesday its members, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes among others, would stop advertising soft drinks to children under the age of 12.
Unesda also pledged to provide unbranded vending machines in secondary schools and that there would be "no engagement in any direct commercial activity" in primary schools.
The announcement came after Unesda met representatives of the European Commission, consumer groups and health organizations as part of the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.
Stephen Kehoe, chair of the Unesda task force and vice-president for government and public affairs for PepsiCo Europe, said the moves were significant.
"This is the first time ever that the major beverage producers in Europe have come together to jointly define their commitments related to responsible sales and marketing practices, especially to children and schools."
Alain Beaumont, secretary general of Unesda, told www.BeverageDaily.com the group hoped to have a monitoring system for advert restrictions by the end of 2006.
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo already operate a policy of not advertising to children under 12, yet Beaumont said Unesda wanted to lay down a common European-wide framework for all its members. The new policy will also be monitored by other stakeholders in the EU obesity platform.
A tentative rule worked out by the platform body is that soft drinks firms would not be able to advertise in any media or around any programme for which under-12s make up more than 50 per cent of the audience.
Unesda, alongside advert and school restrictions, said it would also provide Guideline Daily Amounts on drinks to help consumers measure calorie intake, as well as launch more low-calorie drinks.
Food and drink producers have come under increasing pressure in Europe amid concerns over rising obesity rates.
The European Commission, which launched a green paper on promoting healthy diets and physical activity, estimated that obesity accounted for seven per cent of EU health care costs.
Beaumont said he recognised soft drinks makers had a role to play, but that obesity was a "multi-factoral problem". Soft drinks, he said, were just "one piece among many others".
France banned all vending machines from schools last September in an attempt to tackle the problem, while England and Scotland have pledged to get junk food, including fizzy sodas, out of schools there.
The British Medical Association, representing about three quarters of UK doctors, said that if current trends continue, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls in Britain will be obese by 2020.
Children's products contribute about €14-15bn to the overall €700bn food and drink market in Europe.