UK chocolate manufacturer Cadbury is launching a £9m (US$14.3m) campaign to encourage children to collect chocolate bar wrappers to earn "free" sports equipment for their schools.

Under the marketing scheme, called Cadbury Get Active, tokens from the wrappers of Cadbury's main chocolate brands can be exchanged for items such as netballs, volleyball posts and nets

The campaign, which has been endorsed by the minister for sport Richard Caborn and is being promoted with the Youth Sport Trust, a charity that aims to increase children's participation in sport, has met with heavy criticism from consumer watchdogs and health organisations.

The Food Commission pointed out that if children consumed all of the promotional chocolate bars issued by Cadbury, they would consume nearly two million kilograms of fat and over 36 billion calories. The Commission went on to describe how a ten-year-old child eating enough chocolate to earn a basketball through the Cadbury marketing scheme would need to play basketball for 90 hours to burn off the calories consumed.

A report by the Food Commission also criticises Caborn for endorsing the chocolate marketing scheme, and for allowing his approval to be expressed in a Cadbury press release.

In the press release, Caborn is quoted as saying: "I am delighted that Cadbury is prepared to support this drive to get more young people active by providing equipment and resources for schools. In partnership we could make a real difference to the quality of young people's lives."

"Most schools are working hard to improve school meals, teach children about good nutrition, and provide healthy snacks, supported by the Departments of Health and Education," said Kath Dalmeny, research officer for the Food Commission. "Yet here we have a sports minister explicitly endorsing a scheme to get teachers to urge children to eat more fat and sugar! Talk about contradictory policies!"

The chairman of the government's obesity taskforce, Professor Phil James, was quoted by the Guardian as saying: "This is a classic example of how the food and soft drinks industry are failing to take on board that they are major contributors to obesity problems throughout the world.

"They always try to divert attention to physical activity. Independent analysts have found that Cadbury Schweppes has one of the worst portfolios for products in terms of children's wellbeing."

A spokesman for the Department of Sport said it did not believe the campaign would encourage children to buy more chocolate. "The campaign will encourage children to realise that when they eat chocolate they need to do it in the context of a balanced life and being active," he was quoted by the Guardian as saying.

Cadbury defended its marketing scheme, arguing that it expected the wider community to club together to use their wrappers from the chocolate they are already eating.

Martin Paterson, deputy director general of industry group the Food and Drink Federation backed Cadbury's scheme, saying: "Food and drink manufacturers take a very responsible view of their relationships with consumers, including children.  Snacks and drinks can clearly form a part of a balanced diet. The drop in children's levels of activity has been identified as one of the key factors in increasing obesity and schemes that encourage healthy active lifestyles can make a real contribution to children's health."