Food manufacturing giants including Cadbury, Kellogg and Mars have pledged more than GBP200m (US$398m) to support a UK government-backed scheme to tackle obesity in the country.

The likes of Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo have also joined the consortium of manufacturers, retailers, broadcasters and fitness groups in supporting a campaign dubbed Change4Life, which hopes to encourage people to eat more healthily and take more exercise.

Food companies, backed by the Advertising Association, will incorporate messages from the campaign into their advertising and will also offer free air-time and cash.

Advertising Association chief executive Baroness Buscombe said industry was “part of the solution” to tackling obesity in the UK.

“By harnessing the immense talents in this country in advertising, marketing and media, we believe we can make a real difference, bringing about real change,” she said.

The problem of obesity is growing in the UK with government figures estimating that two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese.

Government forecasts published last year predicted that, by 2050, 60% of adult men, half of all adult women and a quarter of children under 16 could be obese.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said last night (23 July) that obesity is the “biggest challenge” the UK faces.

“Tackling obesity requires a much broader partnership, not only with families, but with employers, retailers, the leisure industry, the media, local government and the voluntary sector. We need a national movement that will bring about a fundamental change in the way we live our lives,” Johnson told the Fabian Society.

Johnson said “vilifying” the obese did not change their behaviour. “Commentators who point and shout at pictures of the morbidly obese simply fuel the problem,” he said. “Those whose seriously unhealthy lifestyles are not advertised by their waist lines will simply say: ‘Well that’s not me. I don’t need to change what I do.’ But if you present the message more intelligently – if you explain to parents that many children, regardless of their size, have dangerous levels of fat in their arteries or around their organs, and this may reduce their life expectancy by up to 11 years – then people respond.”

The Change4Life programme will be officially launched in the autumn.