English hospitals have been criticised for allowing patients and visitors to gorge on crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolate.

A cancer prevention charity said England has fallen “woefully” behind Scotland and Wales in the provision of healthy food and drink in hospital vending machines.

The World Cancer Research Fund said that unlike the other British nations, England has no national guidelines to ensure hospitals can provide healthy food 24 hours a day.

A poll by the charity found that three-quarters of English hospital trusts have no policy on the food and drink provided by their vending machines.

“Hospital waiting areas often have vending machines that are filled with high-calorie products such as chocolate bars, crisps and sugary soft drinks,” said WCRF general manager Amanda McLean.

“Because there is strong evidence that these foods cause obesity - a risk factor in diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease - they are partly to blame for many people ending up in hospital in the first place.

“Hospitals should put an end to vending machines that sell only high-calorie food and drink. They should be beacons of good health in our communities and encourage and support people in making healthier choices about the food they eat.”

In 2008 the Welsh and Scottish governments introduced guidelines for hospital trusts on providing healthier products in vending machines and England should follow the example, the charity said.

“We want the UK government to correct the situation where England has fallen woefully behind Scotland and Wales in terms of the kind of food and drink offered in vending machines in hospitals,” Mrs McLean added.

“Specifically we should be aiming to introduce guidelines for hospital trusts comparable to those in Scotland.”

In June the British Medical Association said hospitals should ban the sale of junk food and unhealthy drinks on their premises.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which called for a ban on unhealthy foods earlier this year, backed the WCRF’s call for guidelines for English hospitals.

Chairman Professor Terence Stephenson said: “The NHS needs to avoid providing the same obesogenic environment as the high street and send out a clear message that it takes obesity and the health of the nation seriously by offering patients and staff alike healthy food options.

“In February the academy called for improved food standards in hospitals, including vending machines. There is no reason for England to fall behind other UK nations and not have these guidelines in place.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman, said: “Hospitals in England have a clear responsibility to promote healthier choices in vending machines so staff and visitors can eat good quality food.

“We know that some hospitals have already signed up to our Responsibility Deal and committed to making healthier food and drink available, and would encourage other hospitals to do the same and look after their staff, patients and visitors.”