The UK's Food Standards Agency has published a discussion paper on possible options for action on the promotion and advertising of foods that could improve children's diets and health.

Action under consideration includes research, building on existing guidance, best practice, and new regulation. These measures could cover sponsorship, advertising, labelling, endorsements, in-store activity and loyalty schemes, the agency said.

The board of the FSA is to decide next year, following public debate, which policy options it wishes to recommend to the government.

In September 2003, the FSA published an independent research project 'Does Food Promotion Influence Children? A Systematic Review of the Evidence', carried out by Professor Gerard Hastings. His review concluded that advertising to children does have an effect on children's food preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption, and that these effects occur not just at brand level, but also for different types of foods.

"We already know that many children's diets contain more fat, sugar and salt than is recommended. We know that the level of obesity in children is rising and, in the words of the Chief Medical Officer, is a health time bomb that could explode. By 2010 it could cost £3.6bn a year and be a very significant factor in the ill health of thousands of people and their families. This is why the agency is encouraging a wide debate on the options for action that could make a difference. Doing nothing is not an option," said Sir John Krebs, chair of the Food Standards Agency.

Martin Paterson, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the food and drinks industry, welcomed the opportunity for discussion.

"We welcome the opportunity to continue our participation in this important debate with FSA, the Department of Health and other stakeholders. The promotion of food and drink to children is already highly regulated. Strict codes of practice exist to govern advertising: currently advertisements may not encourage children to eat or drink frequently throughout the day; condone excessive consumption; or suggest that confectionery or snacks should replace balanced meals," Paterson said.