Obese and overweight adults in England could be paid to lose weight under plans being considered by the Government. The new strategy to tackle poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles includes the suggestion that people should receive financial rewards or shopping vouchers for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

The £372 million strategy reiterates a target set last year to cut the proportion of overweight and obese children by 2020 to levels in 2000.

Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, and Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said that England should become the first leading nation to reverse the trend for expanding waistlines, especially among children.

A £75 million advertising campaign promoting measures such as fruit-tasting sessions, compulsory cookery lessons in schools and walking buses, where adults lead a group of children to school, will be used to encourage parents and children to lead a healthier life. More schools will be advised to monitor what pupils are eating and parents will be encouraged to use technology to limit the time their children spend on the internet, watching television or playing computer games.

The cross-government strategy, which will be followed up by annual reports, also includes £30 million for the creation of healthy towns, which promote physical activity through safe walking and cycle routes.

Mr Johnson said that the Government would also consider introducing laws if the food industry did not back the idea of a single system for food labelling. The Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives report also sets out the role of the workplace in encouraging people to stay healthy.

Obesity is linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart and liver disease and diabetes but in Britain nearly a quarter of adults and nearly a fifth of children are obese after increases in the last decade. It is predicted that 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women and 25 per cent of children could be obese by 2050 if action is not taken.

The report said: "We will look at using financial incentives, such as payments, vouchers and other rewards, to encourage individuals to lose weight and sustain that weight loss, to eat more healthily, or to be consistently more physically active."

Mr Johnson said: "The core of the problem is simple - we eat too much and we do too little exercise. The solution is more complex."

Mr Balls promised more sport and exercise in and out of school and more play and sports facilities.

The report points to evidence from the US that showed that small financial payments, as part of a broader programme, were effective in encouraging individuals to achieve and maintain weight loss. It also mentions the Well@Work scheme, led by the British Heart Foundation, which offered rewards for losing weight to some employees.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "We will be setting up pilot schemes and evaluating a range of different approaches to using incentives to encourage healthy living over the next year before making any decision."

Paul Lincoln, the chief executive of the National Heart Forum, which represents more than 50 groups and charities, said that the strategy was urgently needed but that progress must be kept under regular review.

Richard Watts, the co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said that the strategy contained some good ideas but the exclusion of tougher rules on junk-food advertising left a gaping hole.

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary, said:

"Labour have failed to make public health a priority. Under Gordon Brown public health budgets have been raided, specialist staff cut and obesity targets missed and scrapped."

Just for starters

The £372 million Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives strategy includes:

- A £75 million marketing campaign to persuade parents to improve their children's diet and encourage physical activity

- A code of practice to be agreed with the food and drink industry

- £30 million invested in "healthy towns" to encourage walking, cycling and other activities

- Increased funding over three years for personalised weight-loss programmes and competitions in workplaces and the community

- Cookery lessons compulsory in all secondary schools by 2011

- Ofcom to bring forward a review into junk-food advertising to children