The war on junk food: Luton Council, situated in the South East of England, has joined the growing list of UK authorities taking steps to curtail the display of unhealthy food and beverage advertisements. In a partnership with Sustain, the council has implemented measures to safeguard the well-being of local adults and children. These regulations apply to all forms of advertising within their jurisdiction.
Luton becomes the eighth local governing body to adopt a Healthier Food Advertising Policy, following the initial introduction by the Mayor of London, with support from Sustain, on the Transport for London network back in 2019. Several other local authorities across the UK have since adopted this policy, including Haringey, Southwark, Merton, Greenwich, Bristol, Barnsley, and Tower Hamlets.
Luton marks the third council outside London to enforce restrictions on the promotion of unhealthy foods.
In May of 2023, Tower Hamlets council greenlit a similar health-oriented advertising policy. This decision positioned Tower Hamlets as the seventh UK local authority to regulate the advertising of products high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS). This policy, presented to the council’s cabinet on May 24, is designed to minimise the visibility of junk food ads for unhealthy foods, particularly those that target children and young individuals residing in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.
Tower Hamlets’ resolution followed extensive advocacy efforts by Sustain. Under this policy, promoting junk food and sugary beverages is prohibited across all council-owned estates, assets, and advertising service contracts procured by the council.
Cutting junk food for a 1000 calorie weekly decrease
Meanwhile, research conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has uncovered that the Transport for London policy led to a significant reduction of 20% in the promotion of junk food such as sugary products, resulting in a weekly decrease of 1,000 calories per household from unhealthy food and beverage consumption. Additionally, projections from the University of Sheffield suggest that these restrictions could potentially yield 95,000 fewer cases of obesity, 3,000 fewer cases of diabetes, and 2,000 fewer cases of heart disease in London. Moreover, it is estimated that this could save the NHS around £218 million over the current population’s lifetime.
Including Luton in the roster of local authorities embracing the Healthier Food Advertising Policy signifies a significant step towards a healthier society. Transport for London has confirmed that its advertising revenues have remained unaffected by these regulations since their inception in 2019. Notably, the first year following implementation witnessed a revenue increase of £2.3 million, and even during the second year (2020-21), despite the financial strains caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, the advertising figures remained stable due to these restrictions.
Fran Bernhardt, a representative from Sustain, commended Luton Council for standing up against the food and beverage industry on behalf of its residents, particularly at a time when national government efforts in health measures have been lacking. Bernhardt highlighted that unhealthy food advertising disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged areas, emphasising that Luton’s initiative levels the playing field by reducing the emphasis on unhealthy products.
Sally Cartwright, Director of Public Health at Luton Council, emphasised the importance of providing Luton’s residents with optimal opportunities for healthy living. This new policy, as Cartwright explained, is just one facet of a comprehensive approach to promoting healthier lifestyles. The council intends to work collaboratively with businesses to ensure that advertising for healthy food and beverages is encouraged on council-owned platforms.
Councillor Khtija Malik, the portfolio holder for Public Health, noted that recent dietary trends have leaned toward convenient but often unhealthy junk food. The consequences of consuming such products, especially in children, are severe, encompassing heightened risks of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. To counter these risks and protect children and adults, Malik underscored the necessity of reducing their exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks. The Luton Healthier Food and Drink Advertising Policy aligns with the council’s broader 2040 vision to enhance the health outcomes for its residents.
Government stalls initiatives
On a global scale, the World Health Organization has recently issued guidance recommending comprehensive and obligatory policies to shield children from the marketing of high-fat, salt, and sugar foods and non-alcoholic beverages. While local authorities in the UK are taking proactive measures, the national government has faced criticism for stalling anti-obesity initiatives. Legal actions to restrict unhealthy food advertising have been put on hold, despite being a fundamental element of the government’s obesity strategy.
The national government had initially committed to a complete online ban on such advertising and a 9 pm TV watershed restriction. However, the initiation of these policies has been repeatedly postponed. Under the governance of Rishi Sunak, these delays were extended by an additional two years in December 2022, resulting in a three-year lag from the original commitment.
These developments transpire amidst findings from the Obesity Health Alliance, indicating that most adults (79% for TV and 81% for online) favour government restrictions on unhealthy food advertising directed at children.
In a recent move, the national government extended the delay on restrictions for multi-buy promotions by two years. These promotions have been linked to a 22% increase in unhealthy food and beverages spending. Consequently, this policy could have played a pivotal role in mitigating the inundation of such products and facilitating improved access to healthy alternatives, especially in light of the ongoing cost of living crisis affecting many individuals.