Andrew Boff is a member of the London Assembly.
Last Friday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to ban “junk food” advertising across the entirety of the Transport for London estate. He told Assembly Members that his proposals amounted to a “small price to pay to help reduce childhood obesity”. There are only two things wrong with this statement. It won’t be a small price and it won’t help reduce childhood obesity.
Sadiq Khan is basing his policy on what the Dutch rolled out in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam Healthy Weight Programme was a comprehensive approach to tackling obesity in school-children which came to incorporate a ban on advertising unhealthy food on the City’s urban transport system. Studies showed that between 2012-15, there was indeed a significant loss of weight in a sample of 11-16 year olds in Amsterdam. But the ad ban did not come in until January of this year, well after the studies were complete. Therefore no inference about its impact can be drawn. Since then, there has been no further appreciable decline in childhood obesity rates.
As Conservatives, we need to learn the true lessons of this example, not the Mayor’s warped take. Voluntary, self-regulated, and localised initiatives are the right approach. The Dutch encourage physical activity in and out of schools, improved nutritional education for kids, and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. That is more likely to work than state-imposed diktats.
When you think about it, is it likely that the type of billboard ads you see on the tube are really likely to influence children’s behaviour? Especially when you bear in mind that less than three per cent of tube travellers are kids and they’re bombarded by ads on social media platforms all day long? Of course not.
But this does get to the nub of what his proposals are fundamentally about – he’s not really interested in controlling what kids get to see, he’s interested in controlling what fully functioning adults get to see on their daily commute.
His proposals are much more far-reaching than you might expect. For a start, it’s not just about “junk food”. The State Advertising Commissar he’ll need to appoint to implement these regulations could well end up banning, under the Mayor’s rules, the advertising of staples like butter, milk and cheese; there would be no more advertising Christmas Mince pie treats, or Dine In Meals for Two that feature a tasty chocolate pudding. He could even ban the advertising of summer barbies that show sausages sizzling on the grill.
In truth, Sadiq wants to be the Nanny of London every bit as much as the Mayor of London.
The other sinister element of this proposal is who will pick up the tab?
The simple answer is hard-pressed, ordinary Londoners. The Mayor has been doing his level best to pretend there will be little or no cost implications to his proposal. He believes that advertisers will continue to willingly fork out large sums to advertise quinoa salads, organic muesli bars, or kale and cucumber smoothies, in place of their usual fare. More likely, they will simply switch advertising platforms to ones which are not encumbered by the complexities introduced by this Mayor’s flights of fancy.
Less advertising revenues coming in means TfL is going to lose out. Big time. Even TfL, who have an interest in underplaying the cost of the Mayor’s recklessness,reckon they will lose £13 million. Once the full extent of the ban is known it may be much, much more. That’s no small beer, on top of the £1 billion TfL deficit which this incompetent Mayor has helped to create. At some point something is going to have to give, and that something is likely to be fares. Of course, slippery Sadiq wouldn’t dream of pumping them up before the next Mayoral Election, but God forbid if he was ever to be returned …
At the end of the day, the Mayor justifies this outrageous policy on the basis that it’s popular. But is it? He states that 82 per cent of those who responded to his consultation supported a ban. However, this is a self-selecting minority who can be bothered to reply to his question. Other statistically-valid, representative samples of Londoners tell a different story. They show that Londoners, quite sensibly, doubt the effectiveness of any ban, that they demand proof before one is introduced, and they are horrified at the prospect of their fares being increased to pay for it.
How to tackle childhood obesity is a complex question demanding multifaceted solutions. The Mayor of London simplistic ban on ‘unhealthy’ food and drink advertising is the wrong answer. We Conservatives need to find the right ones.