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Food ads in France get health warnings

PARIS -- Less fat, less sugar, less salt: Even the mostly svelte French are cracking down.

Beginning yesterday, the government ordered food ads to carry cautions telling the French to stop snacking, exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables.

With processed snacks and fast food encroaching on France's culinary traditions, health officials fear the nation's youth face a growing risk of obesity.

This from a nation where slightly more than 9 percent of the 63.4 million citizens are obese and fewer than a third are overweight, according to government figures. In the United States, by comparison, one-third of adults are obese, about two-thirds are overweight. Several Mediterranean and Eastern European countries have similar statistics.

The ad restrictions fly in the face of the image of the trim and cuisine-conscious French, perpetuated by books like Mireille Guiliano's best seller "French Women Don't Get Fat." The book argues that the French can eat croissants and foie gras without ballooning because they take time to savor flavors and eat judiciously.

But the growth of processed snacks and ready-made meals with high fat, salt, and sugar are changing that image.

France and the World Health Organization are particularly worried about an obesity epidemic striking the young and bringing future health risks with it, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. WHO warns that 20 percent of children across Europe are overweight, their ranks swelling by 400,000 a year.

Other European countries have already taken measures along the lines of France. Sweden and Norway forbid broadcast advertising aimed at children. Ireland imposed a ban on TV ads for candy and fast food and prohibits using celebrities and sports stars to promote junk food to kids. Britain has adopted nutritional guidance for food packages.

France's new health guidance affects advertisements on television, radio, and billboards and the Internet for processed, sweetened, or salted food and drinks.