Public health bodies are urging the government to back up its rhetoric on obesity with legislation.

The calls came after health secretary Alan Johnson unveiled plans for a "national movement" to tackle the problem.

Mr Johnson announced that the Department of Health was working with charities, retailers, community action groups, other government departments and the health profession to put together an anti-obesity drive.

He said the government must be neither nannying nor neglectful in tackling the problem, but should work hand in hand with families, employers, retailers, the leisure industry, the media, local government and the voluntary sector.

"We are calling on everyone, from the smallest community keep-fit class to the biggest retailers in the land, to join in this campaign to change the way we live our lives," he said.

Industry support

Mr Johnson said major players in the food industry had already pledged their support, but he said the government needed to "get the balance right" by providing opportunities for the establishment of voluntary systems before turning to statutory codes.

But the Faculty of Public Health and the Association of Directors of Public Health warned it was likely statutory powers would be needed to give the initiative enough muscle to make the changes required quickly.

Faculty president Alan Maryon-Davis welcomed the proposed "movement" but said the debate over the regulation of food labelling shared parallels with the alcohol industry, which had been "pussy-footing around for 10 years, playing one government department off against another".

Getting tough

"It may well be that we have to get tough with the food industry: on food labelling we've been played along by the industry for a long time," he said. "We do need to get the gloves off. If you want to get a mass movement going, you have to get moving."

Paul Edmondson-Jones, Portsmouth City PCT public health director and honorary secretary of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said Mr Johnson had "started things moving", but added: "[This] will probably need some kind of support in terms of legislation of major food retailers - particularly if we want to have a quick impact.

"Voluntary agreements take so long to work through and yet we really need to turn this round quickly, so we would need some support."

See Michael White's column for more.