Making soft drinks the scapegoat for rising childhood obesity fails to take account of the contribution soft drinks manufacturers are making to tackle the problem through more socially responsible marketing and the introduction of healthier products, writes Annette Farr. It would be more beneficial to address children's inactive lifestyles with some old-fashioned common sense.

Never before have manufacturers of children's drinks faced such challenges in producing and marketing their drinks. Not only is there the ongoing demand for ever healthier, low-calorie, 'good for you' beverages along with the banning of certain soft drinks in school vending machines, but also marketers are currently in a no-man's land when it comes to advertising and promoting their products.

Two years ago Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, published its research into the effect of advertising what are defined as HFSS foods (high in fat, salt and sugar) on children.

Later, the Department of Health, in its 'Choosing Health' White paper, asked Ofcom to consult on proposals to tighten the rules on broadcast advertising, sponsorship and promotion of food and drink products. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) then delivered to Ofcom its nutrient profiling model which could be used to differentiate between different types of products so that restrictions on advertising to children could be appropriately targeted.

Since then, Ofcom has set out a number of proposals for consultation. Each includes, in some form or other, the banning or limiting of HFSS advertising in programmes made specifically for children. The FSA has since said in an official letter to Ofcom that it supports a pre-9pm watershed ban on advertisements for HFSS products as "we consider this a practical means of extending protection to older age groups".

The initial consultation period was extended to 30 June and currently the industry awaits the outcome.

Meanwhile, the market research and strategy consultancy ChildWise has just published its Monitor Trends Report for 2006 which confirms the unprecedented change in children's media with ever-widening choice and fragmentation.

Its UK survey, which covers 1,200 children aged between five and 16 years, reveals the Internet is fast replacing TV as their preferred choice of entertainment. Almost all have a PC at home, while four in ten have their own computer. The proportion of children surveyed with Internet access is around seven in ten, while half of those aged between seven and 16 have broadband.

The survey also revealed that eight out of ten children aged between five and 16 have their own TV and seven in ten their own DVD player, while more than a third now have their own MP3 player, twice as many as a year ago. Nine out of ten 11- to 16-year-olds have their own mobile phones.

As the industry awaits the outcome of Ofcom's proposals, there is arguably little more it can do to assuage concerns that the nation's children are drinking in an unhealthy way. Brands have responded in a responsible fashion. Indeed for the past 50 years, Coca-Cola Enterprises has had a policy not to target the advertising of carbonated soft drinks at the under-12s.

A spokesperson said: "In 2003, this was extended to include the advertising of all our brands, whether carbonated or still, regular, low sugar or diet. At the heart of our policy is the belief that parents should be able to choose the drinks they believe are right for their own family."

Elsewhere, new product development such as the revamped Panda Pops and Sunny Delight ranges, along with Cotts new Disney-branded drinks, feature increased juice content, added vitamins and minerals in low- or no-calorie variants. There has been unprecedented activity, too, in the bottled water sector accompanied by a campaign to encourage children to drink more water to help concentration levels whilst in the classroom.

But, obesity figures continue to rise.

At the recent 'Meeting Europe's Obesity Challenge' conference held in Brussels, Dr Geof Rayner, Visiting Research Fellow at The City University, revealed that Europe is tracking America's obesity epidemic, with the prevalence of obesity in children four times higher in the UK today than it was 30 years ago.

In New Zealand, a new report, Does watching television contribute to increased body weight and obesity in children? commissioned by Agencies for Nutrition Action, found that every hour children spend watching television increases their risk of becoming obese. Children watching the most TV had double the risk of becoming obese compared with children who watch the least.

Ofcom itself said initial research showed TV advertising of food and drink products has a "modest direct effect on children's food preferences". The research also concluded that the influence of advertising is small when compared with other factors linked to childhood obesity such as exercise and family eating habits.

Coca-Cola Enterprises has a four-pronged strategy on obesity. "We are tackling the issue by providing choice to consumers in terms of offering low- or no-calorie variants and fruit-based drinks and water; ensuring consumers have the information necessary to make an informed choice; responsible sales and marketing; and encouraging involvement in sports and physical activity."

Whatever proposals Ofcom finally announces, the trends are there: children are becoming more and more bottom-bound, sitting starry-eyed at a screen, monitor or mobile phone. So it's a vicious circle: television and the Internet add to children's laziness, yet brands, many now promoting nutrition, use the medium to reach their audience.

Perhaps a bit of lateral thinking is called for. Nanny knows best. Fresh air, exercise and wholesome food and drink from birth are the concepts that need to be communicated, whatever the mechanism.