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Experts found youngsters who watched more than three hours of commercial TV a day ate more unhealthily than those who watched very little.

On average, they had ten extra snack items, such as crisps, biscuits or fizzy drinks, a week – totalling more than 500 a year.

 However, when they watched TV without adverts, there was no link between screen time and the likelihood of eating more junk food, the Cancer Research UK team found, suggesting adverts may drive snacking.

Campaigners have long called for a ban on junk-food advertising before the 9pm watershed – but ministers have so far resisted.

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Advertising high-calorie food is banned during programmes aimed at children. But health campaigners point out that this does not apply to mainstream shows such as The X Factor or live football matches, which millions of youngsters watch.

Britain’s obesity problem is the worst in western Europe, with two-thirds of adults and a third of children overweight. Experts fear that the pattern will lead to major health problems, with rates of heart disease and diabetes predicted to soar.

Obesity is also the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.

Researcher Dr Jyotsna Vohra said: ‘This is the strongest evidence yet that junk food adverts could increase how much teens choose to eat.

‘We’re not claiming that every teenager who watches commercial TV will gorge on junk food, but this research suggests there is a strong association between advertisements and eating habits. It’s been ten years since the first, and only, TV junk food marketing regulations were introduced by Ofcom and they’re seriously out of date.

‘Our report suggests that reducing junk food TV marketing could help to halt the obesity crisis.’ The study was based on a YouGov survey, which questioned 3,348 youngsters aged 11 to 19 on their TV viewing habits and diet.

Separate research by the Obesity Health Alliance has found that more than half of food and drink adverts shown during popular family TV shows were for products high in fat, sugar and salt, which would be banned from children’s TV channels.

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Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: ‘The Government needs to work with Ofcom to protect the health of the next generation.’

Professor Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the study showed the power of advertising, and Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance, added: ‘Companies wouldn’t spend so much on advertising junk food if they didn’t think it worked.’


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