Understanding how unhealthy food companies influence advertising restrictions

Advertising is a key vector used to promote unhealthy products, and there is a long history of efforts to ban or restrict advertising as a key element of tobacco control. Advertising restrictions are also starting to be implemented to protect the public from promotions for other unhealthy products, including junk food. In particular, in 2019 London Transport — who runs buses and subways there — implemented a policy to limit advertising for foods high in fat, sugar and salt despite objections from major companies that sell these products.

In their paper “Corporate political activity in the context of unhealthy food advertising restrictions across Transport for London: A qualitative case study” published in PLOS Medicine Kathrin Lauber and colleagues from the University of Bath used the Freedom of Information Act to study the public comments submitted to the Greater London Authority after it proposed the policy in 2018.

Except for some smaller businesses, most food and advertising industry respondents opposed the proposed advertising restrictions. Similar to arguments that the tobacco companies use to oppose advertising restrictions, these comments contested the evidence supporting the ban, promoted ineffective voluntary approaches, exaggerated costs of implementation and to society, and underplayed benefits of the advertising ban. Some industry comments also hinted at potential legal action, although none was filed during the period reported in the paper (through April 2021). Significantly, the adverse effects on food industry profits were not among the arguments that the industry raised against the proposed advertising ban.

Despite this opposition, rules severely limiting advertising of these junk foods went into effect, ending most advertising for these products on London buses and subways.

As I pointed out in an editorial accompanying the paper, Unfortunately, the Greater London Council did not publish a detailed draft policy as part of the consultation, so it was not possible to assess how effective industry lobbying was in terms of impacting the final policy. Health interests should press for publication of draft policies in order to both be able to comment on (and support, when appropriate) specific policies as well as assess the extent of government deference to industry in proposing initial policies or industry influence in weakening good policies. In addition, Lauber and colleagues only assess comments from industry that were critical of the rule, even though some businesses supported the rule. These businesses tended to be smaller local businesses, whereas the critics tended to be major multinational corporations and their agents and allies.

Creating a public health policy is only the first step; it is also important that the policy be implemented and enforced. Lauber and colleagues report that of 81 exception applications, London Transport accepted two-thirds (54). As they noted, the staff members responsible for enforcing the policy and granting exemptions are from the advertising team and also responsible for meeting advertising revenue targets. This potential conflict of interest issue is worthy of future research.

The authors do not assess the arguments submitted by the public health community at all. These issues are also worth further exploration, because doing so could guide public health authorities and advocates on how to argue for and mobilize business support for public health interventions.

Despite this unanswered questions, the Lauber paper is an important model for future research on corporate determinants of health and how public health authorities and advocates can anticipate and counter these forces.

Here is the abstract:

Background. Diets with high proportions of foods high in fat, sugar, and/or salt (HFSS) contribute to malnutrition and rising rates of childhood obesity, with effects throughout the life course. Given compelling evidence on the detrimental impact HFSS advertising has on children’s diets, the World Health Organization unequivocally supports the adoption of restrictions on HFSS marketing and advertising. In February 2019, the Greater London Authority introduced novel restrictions on HFSS advertising across Transport for London (TfL), one of the most valuable out-of-home advertising estates. In this study, we examined whether and how commercial actors attempted to influence the development of these advertising restrictions.

Methods and findings. Using requests under the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained industry responses to the London Food Strategy consultation, correspondence between officials and key industry actors, and information on meetings. We used an existing model of corporate political activity, the Policy Dystopia Model, to systematically analyse arguments and activities used to counter the policy. The majority of food and advertising industry consultation respondents opposed the proposed advertising restrictions, many promoting voluntary approaches instead. Industry actors who supported the policy were predominantly smaller businesses. To oppose the policy, industry respondents deployed a range of strategies. They exaggerated potential costs and underplayed potential benefits of the policy, for instance, warning of negative economic consequences and questioning the evidence underlying the proposal. Despite challenging the evidence for the policy, they offered little evidence in support of their own claims. Commercial actors had significant access to the policy process and officials through the consultation and numerous meetings, yet attempted to increase access, for example, in applying to join the London Child Obesity Taskforce and inviting its members to events. They also employed coalition management, engaging directly and through business associations to amplify their arguments. Some advertising industry actors also raised the potential of legal challenges. The key limitation of this study is that our data focused on industry–policymaker interactions; thus, our findings are unable to present a comprehensive picture of political activity.

Conclusions. In this study, we identified substantial opposition from food and advertising industry actors to the TfL advertising restrictions. We mapped arguments and activities used to oppose the policy, which might help other public authorities anticipate industry efforts to prevent similar restrictions in HFSS advertising. Given the potential consequences of commercial influence in these kinds of policy spaces, public bodies should consider how they engage with industry actors.

The full citation is Lauber K, Hunt D, Gilmore AB, Rutter H (2021) Corporate political activity in the context of unhealthy food advertising restrictions across Transport for London: A qualitative case study. PLoS Med 18(9): e1003695. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003695. It is available for free here.

The full citation for my accompanying editorial is Glantz SA (2021) Understanding how unhealthy food companies influence advertising restrictions. PLoS Med 18(9): e1003742. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003742. It is available for free here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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