LONDON – Billboards advertising junk food from vendors like McDonald’s Corp. might be banned from London’s Underground rail and bus network under new plans announced by the city’s mayor, as part of his efforts to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity.
Sadiq Khan, elected mayor of London in 2016, said in a statement that he wanted to reduce the influence and pressure put on children and families to make unhealthy choices. Nearly 40 percent of 10-11 year-olds in the capital are overweight or obese, one of the highest rates in Europe, the mayor’s office said.
A large percentage of the advertising that would be affected comes from “a handful” of major companies and brands, a Transport for London (TfL) spokesman wrote in an email. A spokeswoman for McDonald’s, whose advertisements are a regular fixture at London Underground stations, said the company shares the mayor’s ambition to reduce childhood obesity.
“We take our responsibilities extremely seriously and have always complied with and exceeded the stringent marketing requirements placed on us — some of the strictest in the world,” she added.
Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, a lobby group for the U.K. ad industry, said research has shown an advertising ban would have little impact on the wider societal issues that drive obesity, which is caused by the interaction of many factors.
Amsterdam is among other cities to have introduced similar measures, bringing in a ban on advertisements for unhealthy food on its transport network at the start of this year. But Woodford said the Dutch capital used a multifaceted strategy, which also focused on helping people change their diets and exercise patterns.
The U.K. already bans the advertising of food or drink products that are high in fat, sugar and salt from media where under-16-year-olds make up more than 25 percent of the audience — including TV, online, social media and in the street or on public transport, Woodford added.
Mayor Khan also proposed a ban on new hot food takeaway stores opening within 400 meters (1,300 feet) of schools. Children from poorer areas are disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic, he said, adding that young people from Barking and Dagenham in East London are almost twice as likely to be overweight as children from the upmarket Richmond neighborhood in the West.
The advertising proposals announced on Friday would use an already established nutrient profiling system to determine whether a food or drink is high in fat, salt and sugar. The model is currently used by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority and its communications regulator Ofcom.
Food and drink advertising contributed about £20 million pounds ($27 million) to Transport for London’s revenue during the 2016/17 financial year, with about two-thirds of that coming from “high fat, salt and sugar” food and drink, the spokesman added. That’s just a fraction of the £5.4 billion pounds TfL earned in gross income.