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No more junk food ads on London transit

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The mayor has cracked down on images portraying unhealthy food, in hopes that it will reduce child obesity rates.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has announced that junk food will no longer be advertised on public transportation in the city. This includes the Underground, Overground, London buses, trams, and taxis. Taking effect on 25 Feb 2019, no images portraying foods and beverages high in fat, sugar, or salt will be allowed; for example, images of sugary drinks, cheeseburgers, chocolate bars and salted nuts would be banned, but unsalted nuts, raisins, and sugar-free drinks would be acceptable. In a statement issued by the mayor’s office:

“Child obesity is putting the lives of young Londoners at risk and placing huge pressure on our already strained health service. It is absolutely imperative that we take tough action against this ticking time bomb now, and reducing exposure to junk food advertising has a role to play in this — not just for children, but parents, families and carers who buy food and prepare meals.”

The move is part of Khan’s broader plan to combat childhood obesity, a rampant problem in the city. Currently, almost 40 percent of children aged 11 and 12 are overweight or obese, and there has been a huge spike in the number of kids diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Most recent stats show that 7,000 children have the disease, linked to obesity, and the obesity rate is almost double in low-income areas of the city, compared to prosperous ones.

The rationale behind the advertising ban is that when children are exposed to junk food advertising, whether it’s on TV, outside, or on the Internet, the risk of consumption increases. From the mayor’s statement:

“A report published earlier this year by Cancer Research UK found young people who recalled seeing junk food adverts every day were more than twice as likely to be obese. The same study found 87 percent of young people found adverts for high fat, salt and sugar products appealing, with three-quarters tempted to eat a product after seeing such an advert.”

It makes shopping more difficult for parents, too, when children are familiar with junk food brands. There’s more begging and pleading for treats, which even the strictest of parents can find hard to resist at times.

Three million people use London’s public transit daily, so its advertisements are widely viewed. Khan’s plan has an impressive 82 percent support rate, so clearly Londoners believe he’s on the right track. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver supports it, calling it “an amazing move,” and Prof. Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for the country, says it’s “an important step in the right direction.”

Other efforts in the draft London Plan to fight obesity include banning fast food joints within 400 meters of school entrances and establishing a Child Obesity Taskforce, whose mission is to cut in half “the percentage of London’s children who are overweight at the start of primary school and obese at the end of primary school by 2030, and to reduce the gap between child obesity rates in the richest and poorest areas in London.”

These are all valuable efforts, but I wonder how effective an advertising ban can be, particularly if junk food advertising online and on TV continues unabated, which is where most young children spend their time. Even when traveling on public transit, most kids have their heads down watching screens, not paying attention to billboards around them.

I think a better solution – although far more complex – would be to implement school food programs that feed children the healthy, seasonal food they should be eating. It would be expensive, but when measured against the long-term health costs of treating type 2 diabetes for decades, it might not be so bad.

When parents do not have to pack lunches, and thus don’t feel tempted to fall back on convenient junky snacks and such, children are more likely to eat well. There are excellent models for this in France (read all about it in Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman) and Japan, where school lunch programs are well-established and impressively nutritious, and where teaching children to appreciate good food is considered part of their education.

London is smart to get this ball rolling, but let’s hope the city doesn’t stop here. The root causes for childhood obesity need to be addressed, families must be taught how to cook and feed their children, and the kids need to learn to appreciate good food. If it’s not happening at home, then school is the logical place to do this.

The mayor has cracked down on images portraying unhealthy food, in hopes that it will reduce child obesity rates.

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