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TfL junk food ad ban linked to less buying of high fat, salt and sugar products

The biggest effects were seen on chocolate and confectionery, with an almost 20% decrease in average weekly purchases of energy from the products.

17 February 2022

A ban on junk food advertising by Transport for London is estimated to have contributed to a 1,000 calorie decrease in unhealthy purchases in consumers’ weekly household shopping, according to a study.

The biggest effects were seen for chocolate and confectionery, with an almost 20% decrease in average weekly household purchases of energy from these products, research led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) found.

The fall works out to be about 385 calories per person per week, equivalent to every Londoner in the study buying about 1.5 fewer standard-size bars of milk chocolate each week.

The ban is aimed at products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), including sugary drinks, cheeseburgers, chocolate bars and salted nuts, with restrictions in place across the Underground, Overground, buses, Docklands Light Railway, taxis and on TfL-owned roadside advertising sites such as roundabouts and bus stops.

The study, published in PLOS Medicine, compared almost two million weekly grocery purchases of HFSS products by households in London and the north of England between June 2018 and December 2019 to estimate the effect of the policy.

Researchers found the policy was associated with an estimated 1,001 calorie (6.7%) decrease in average weekly household purchases of energy from HFSS products compared with what would have happened without the policy.

Most strikingly, the average weekly purchases of energy from chocolate and confectionery fell by 317.9 calories (19.4%).

The team found some limited indications that the effect of the ban was larger in households with individuals living with obesity.

Dr Amy Yau, from LSHTM and the study’s lead author, 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.”

Professor Steven Cummins, also from LSHTM and the study’s chief investigator, said: “The impacts we observed are larger than those reported for the UK soft drinks industry levy, those predicted for a 9pm advertising watershed on HFSS foods, or a 20% tax on sugary snacks.

“The findings are particularly significant in light of the Health Bill currently going through Parliament, as they provide further evidence for the effectiveness of advertising restrictions and help support the case for the Government’s proposed ban on the online advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods and drinks.”

Professor Cummins added: “More work is needed, but our study suggests these types of policies could have a significant impact on reducing consumption of high fat, salt and sugar foods, and offer a potentially effective intervention in other important public health policy areas such as the regulation of alcohol and gambling advertising.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan said: “It is a scandal that London has such high levels of child obesity and, that in a city as prosperous as ours, where you live and the amount you earn can have such a huge bearing on whether you have access to healthy and nutritious food.

“There is no denying that advertising plays an enormous role in putting less healthy food and drink in the spotlight, and I am pleased to see the positive impact these groundbreaking measures have had, leading to a real reduction in the amount of junk food being purchased.”

Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, said: “We’re delighted to see that TfL’s healthier food advertising policy is working as intended and is helping to stem the tide of junk food advertising that constantly nudges us towards less healthy options.

“It acts as an incentive to business to produce and put healthier options into the spotlight instead, and to play their part in making London a healthier city for us all, and especially children.

“The research offers further valuable insight and evidence that we hope will also give confidence to other regional and national policymakers: healthy food advertising regulations do work and have a role to play in supporting healthier food choices.”

Advertising Association chief executive Stephen Woodford said: “The UK’s obesity challenge is a complex and multi-faceted one and needs solutions that are targeted and effective. Blanket bans on advertising even by the Government’s own estimates have marginal impacts on food preferences and calorie reduction, so there will be many reasons for the changes in purchasing habits seen in the London area.

“Whether they can all be ascribed to the TfL ‘junk food’ ban, when TfL’s own advertising sites are only a part of a Londoner’s overall media consumption, needs further examination, as the claimed impacts strike us as optimistic compared with those seen in other studies, here in the UK and around the world.”

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