News / Children's Food Campaign

Heavy opposition to London's junk food ad ban uncovered

New research reveals how companies lobbied Transport for London to influence the Healthier Food Advertising Policy.

Credit: Sustain

Credit: Sustain

Using Freedom of Information requests, the University of Bath's new research reveals that behind the scenes, companies mounted strong opposition to the London policy to restrict advertising for high fat, salt and sugar products across the transport network.

Companies opposed the policy through official channels, such as the London Food Strategy consultation, as well as trying to influence through more direct approaches such as informal calls. In one case, KFC invited a Childhood Obesity Taskforce member on a 'magical mystery tour' of London eateries and a tour of Brixton.

They also used coalition groups to voice their interests, while neglecting to disclose the companies behind them. The British Takeaway Campaign lists Just Eat as a member, when in fact it was founded by a PR agency on behalf of Just Eat.

Some of these approaches were attempts to increase their involvement in the policy process, for example by offering to collaborate with the Taskforce on the policy (note: the Taskforce was not directly involved in its development). They also sought out opportunities to argue against the public health proposals, for instance, by sharing industry-funded research while undermining independent evidence that supported the policy proposals. Additionally, common arguments included that the policy would not reduce the purchasing of unhealthy products, but also contradictorily that the advertising policy would cause financial losses.

In February 2019, the Mayor of London introduced the Healthier Food Advertising Policy on the Transport for London network. This followed public consultations which showed that 82% of Londoners were supportive of the proposals. The policy swaps out the advertising of unhealthy food and drinks, and replaces them with healthier products. Sustain advised the Mayor of London’s team on the writing and implementation of the Healthier Food Advertising Policy and has subsequently supported 4 local authorities to bring in their own policies: Bristol, Haringey, Merton and Southwark. More than 60 local authorities have contacted Sustain for support with their own local Healthier Food Advertising Policies and continue to progress this work.

If your local government would like support with implementing its own Healthier Food Advertising Policy, please contact Fran Bernhardt on fran@sustainweb.org.

Fran Bernhardt, Children’s Food Campaign Coordinator for Sustain said:

This research uncovers companies’ enormous efforts to undermine and stall this policy. If only that resource and creativity could be redirected into healthier adverts, more time could be spent making local spaces better for all children to grow up in. 

As national junk food advertising restrictions come into play, companies may now be turning more attention to local advertising. So it’s crucial that local government are aware of these tactics and have more support to put in place similar advertising policies to protect children’s health.

Kathrin Lauber from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath said:

The claims made by the industry actors who opposed the policy are largely not aligned with independent public health evidence but reminiscent of arguments commonly made in debates about the regulation of other unhealthy commodities such as tobacco and alcohol. Public health policymakers should rethink if and how they want to engage with companies whose commercial interests clearly stand in conflict with the policy objective.

Dev Sharma, Chair of Bite Back 2030's Youth Board, said: 

Billions are being spent giving junk food a starring role in children’s minds with advertising, marketing and promotions. I'm 16 and I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and computer, and I’m pretty sure it’s getting worse.

They are everywhere, popping up when we’re watching videos, when I’m gaming with friends, and we don’t have an escape, especially not at the moment when we are living on our screens. It’s time to prioritise child health and take junk food out of the spotlight.

Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance said:

It’s clear from this research that food companies put in phenomenal effort and resource to opposing a public health policy. 

What’s concerning is how much of this lobbying effort is conducted under the radar. It’s likely that the public lobbying we are seeing from industry against new Government plans to restrict junk food adverts on TV and online are also just the tip of the iceberg and it’s vital the Government sticks firmly to its plans to protect children from unhealthy food advertising.

Published 3 Sep 2021

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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