Childhood obesity in London is becoming an epidemic.
Research has demonstrated that London has the highest rate of childhood obesity of any major global city. By school year six (age 11) almost 40 per cent of children are classed as overweight or obese.
We all agree that something has to be done. The question is: what?
The London mayor’s solution is simple but crude: today he is announcing his flagship policy to ban so-called “junk food” advertising on the Transport for London (TfL) estate.
Unfortunately, this is the wrong answer to this pressing problem. It will do nothing to help reduce childhood obesity – everyone, including the mayor’s own officials, accepts that advertising on the tube and buses is not primarily targeted at kids. What it will do is add up to £125m to TfL’s debts over the next five years.
Sadiq Khan’s officials are basing their policy on the Amsterdam Healthy Weight Programme. This was a holistic approach to childhood obesity that included changes in the school curriculum, increased physical exercise, education of children and adults, and, subsequently, an ad ban.
So did it work?
Studies show that between 2012 and 2015, a sample of 11-16-year-olds did see a reduction in weight. However, this happened before the ad ban was introduced on the Amsterdam Metro system. Since then, there has been no further evidence of a decline in obesity rates.
Increasingly in London – as in Amsterdam – people realise that childhood obesity is a complex problem which requires multi-faceted solutions. Our own polling casts doubt on the mayor’s preferred simple answer.
Londoners want to see evidence of success before banning “junk food” transport ads, and are split down the middle as to whether Khan’s approach will be effective. Other measures, such as promoting physical activity, better nutritional advice in schools, and the roll-out of a healthy living campaign, are widely seen by the public as potentially much more effective.
On becoming elected, Khan promised to be London’s most pro-business mayor. He recently told London Assembly members that his officials were “working with industry partners to ensure we minimise any unintended consequences” of his anti-obesity policy.
But since the consultation closed in July, officials have not responded to requests to work with our businesses and understand our pragmatic concerns. The result is that his policy is likely to come into force in March next year, at exactly the same time as the Brexit impacts will hit, cutting industry (and TfL) revenues still further and potentially leading to job losses in London.
I fully understand the responsibility of our industry to be part of the solution to this problem. We want the mayor to work with us to harness the power of advertising.
If we could make one recommendation, even at this late stage, we would urge Khan to create an industry working group to iron out some of the detail of his policy, to review the impact of the proposals, and to help develop our positive initiatives further.
Otherwise, this is likely to be a missed opportunity in the battle to make a real difference against childhood obesity in the capital.