Fed up with fast food advertising

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Transport for London and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have introduced a ban on junk food advertising across London’s entire public transport network.

This ban, established on February 25th, covers all posters advertising food and drink with high fat, salt and sugar content and will extend to buses, bus shelters and taxis as well as the Underground and Overground. This corresponds to Khan’s desire to tackle the “ticking time bomb” of London’s child obesity; Public Health England data from October 2018 showed that more than 37% of 10- and 11-year-olds in London were classed as overweight or obese.

The announcement has come following great public support for the ban; of 1500 respondents to a public consultation conducted last May, 82% supported the proposals. 2018 research conducted by Cancer Research shows how advertising can significantly influence a population’s rate of obesity, revealing that “young people who recalled seeing junk food adverts every day were more than twice as likely to be obese”, with 87% of young people describing images depicting foods high in salt and fat as “appealing”. Khan consequently argues that “it’s clear that advertising plays a huge part in the choices we make, whether we realise it or not, and Londoners have shown overwhelming support for a ban on adverts for junk food and drink on our transport network.”

The Advertising Association and Conservative politicians have however criticised the introduction of this ban, with the Advertising Association arguing that it will have “little impact on the wider societal issues that drive obesity”. Conservative politicians claim that the advertising ban could also lead to an increase in transport fares and stint investment in infrastructure improvements due to Transport for London losing around £13m a year in advertising revenue. YouGov additionally found that 62% of Londoners would oppose the advertisement ban if it resulted in ticket costs rising.

This however points to one of the key reasons why obesity is so prevalent in our society today; people, and particularly businesses, are putting profits before people and human health. To reduce national obesity levels, some expenditure will need to be made, which ultimately will be more than recovered through reduced NHS expenditure on obesity-related treatments coupled with reduced absenteeism due to ill-health.

Obesity needs to be recognised as a societal problem and consequently dealt with using public policy, of which an advertising ban for unhealthy products is one example. Transport for London’s ban is an excellent stepping stone, but is it really enough? In the modern day and age, even regular commuters fail to pay much attention to the advertisements around them on the train. With the rise in technology, people are paying less and less attention to physical adverts on the Tube or in stations as they are much more likely to be distracted by their phones. A ban on physical advertisements is therefore has limitations.

Ultimately this ban is not radical enough to generate the immense change in public attitude towards healthy living that is necessitated to avoid a greater public health epidemic. The ban covers products with high fat, salt and sugar content, but advertisers can get around this by advertising their slightly healthier products instead. Indeed, for fast-food giants like McDonalds this may be an even more effective marketing technique for them; adverts featuring the vibrantly colourful fresh lettuce and juicy tomatoes are more likely to attract people’s attention and draw them in, but upon arriving at McDonalds, how many people would actually order a Shaker Salad after seeing a Big Mac on offer?

Furthermore, this approach relies on establishing benchmarks for permissible fat, salt and sugar content levels, but this creates somewhat of a grey zone. Can producers simply reformulate their products to reduce the salt level by just 1% to avoid the advertising ban?

Despite these criticisms, this ban is evidently a great foundation for an improved public health policy which aims to tackle obesity head-on. While I personally believe that more radical measures are required to produce effective results, such as increasing the sugar tax and encouraging a rethink of how certain lifestyle-related diseases are financed by the NHS, Transport for London only has a limited framework within which they can operate. A ban on advertising the most unhealthy of foods is a great start.

Last modified: 13th March 2019

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