Packets of M&M's chocolates are seen at the production line of Mars Chocolate France's plant in Haguenau (Vincent Kessler-Newscom-Reuters)
Why is Mars, the world's largest candy company, urging the confectionery industry to take a more proactive stance on combating obesity? To avoid having government officials force it to take action.

Candy makers, whose products account for about 2% of the calories consumed in the typical American diet, are already feeling the heat. Some states have implemented candy taxes, and celebrities have been criticized for promoting what are considered to be unhealthy food and drinks. More government actions may follow.

"We need the whole industry to step up," Mars North America President Debra Sandler told a recent industry conference, according to Confectionery News. "We are not judged by the leaders of the category but by those who do not take responsibility for change."

Closely held Mars, whose brands include M&M's and Wrigley gum, is getting praise for this stance from groups such as the Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) that are often critical of good companies. As ABC News.com noted, Mars pushed the U.S. Congress to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which required food served in schools to meet certain nutritional standards -- which led to candy being excluded.

Mars also won't directly market its products to children under 12 years old, a policy adopted by its competitors. And it began putting nutritional information on the front its packages in 2010. Officials at Mars, Hershey (HSY) and the National Confectioners Association couldn't be reached.

"Mars has been making an effort to be more responsible in how they market candy. It's good to see them calling on their colleagues to do the same," said Margo Wootan, CSPI's director of nutrition policy, in an interview with ABC.

Government officials are taking a tougher stance on obesity partly because of the related health care costs, which one study estimated will rise by $550 billion between 2012 and 2030. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has pushed the city to ban the sales of large sugary sodas, which the soda industry has challenged in court. Is that what Mars would do?

--Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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