Industry HFSS ad ban claims wear thin with TfL success

Platform 10b at Wimbledon for TramsThe advertising and marketing industry’s claims that outlawing junk food ads will not tackle the UK’s super-sized obesity problem appear to have been battered by a new analysis revealing the positive effects of Transport for London’s ban.

TfL first introduced the ad ban in February 2019, as a groundbreaking measure to help tackle child obesity in London. Food and drink brands, restaurants, takeaways and delivery services are only able to place ads which promote their healthier products, rather than simply publicising their brands.

And, according to new research published by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition & Physical Activity, the move has prevented almost 100,000 obesity cases in the UK and is expected to save the NHS over £200m.

Researchers compared almost 2 million weekly grocery purchases of products high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS) by households in London and the North of England between June 2018 and December 2019.

They found the policy contributed to a 1,000 calorie decrease in energy from unhealthy food purchases in consumers’ weekly shopping compared to what would have happened without it.

The report estimates that the policy has directly led to 94,867 fewer cases of obesity than expected (4.8% decrease), 2,857 fewer cases of diabetes, and 1,915 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease.

LSHTM research fellow and lead author Dr Amy Yau said: “Many governments and local authorities are considering advertising restrictions to reduce consumption of HFSS products as part of obesity prevention strategies.

“However, evidence of the effectiveness of such policies, especially away from broadcast media, is scarce.

“Our study helps to plug that knowledge gap, showing TfL’s policy is a potential destination for decision-makers aiming to reduce diet-related disease more widely.”

Co-author Dr Chloe Thomas, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health & Related Research, added: “We all know how persuasive and powerful advertising can be in influencing what we buy – especially the food we eat. Our study has shown what an important tool advertising restrictions can be in order to help people lead healthier lives without costing them more money.

“We hope that demonstrating the policy’s significant benefits in preventing obesity and the diseases exacerbated by obesity, will lead to it being rolled out on a national scale, something that could save lives and NHS money.”

The UK Government first mooted proposals to banish ads for HFSS food and drink brands in August 2019, with plans to move TV and online ads beyond the 9pm watershed. However, in November 2020 it was announced that the ban would extend to all online ads, no matter what time of day.

More than 800 food and drink manufacturers – including Unilever, Mars, Britvic, Kellogg’s and Associated British Foods – joined the fight against the plans, claiming the proposal was “disproportionate” and that targeting tools could easily assuage concerns.

The companies, which between them own more than 3,000 UK brands, insisted they were not been given enough time to submit detailed objections.

But ministers eventually relented and reverted to the original post watershed measures. The online ad ban will affect all paid-for forms of digital marketing, from ads on Facebook to paid-search results on Google, text message promotions, and paid activity on sites such as Instagram and Twitter.

However, branded advertising online and on TV will continue to be allowed as long as no HFSS products appear. Brands will also be allowed to continue to promote their products on their own websites and social media accounts.

Even so, in May, the Government announced that the ban will not come into force until January 2024, citing a delay to the Health & Care Bill receiving Royal Assent, as well as a growing recognition that the industry needed more time to prepare.

At the time, the Advertising Association called the 12-month delay “a sensible decision”, despite howls of protest from healthy food campaigners. The AA has yet to comment on this latest report.

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