Upward trend in councils introducing ‘ethical’ ad policies

Great news! The impact of advertising on health and wellbeing is beginning to be really understood with local councils leading the way by introducing content restrictions on the ad sites that they control linked to addressing Public Health goals.

Research on Characterizing restrictions on commercial advertising and sponsorship of harmful commodities in local government policies: a nationwide study in England published in the Journal of Public Health has mapped the prevalence of advertising and sponsorship policies in local authorities that place restrictions on harmful products and services in a response to public health needs. This shows an upward trend in policies being introduced as well as an expansion of the different products that are covered, which has also continued since the study.

Key points:

  • Advertising and sponsorship are key drivers of the consumption of harmful commodities and undermine public health efforts to reduce risk factors for non-communicable diseases and health inequalities.
  • Local authorities have substantial powers and levers to reduce the marketing of harmful commodities through local policies that restrict the advertising and sponsorship of harmful products in public spaces.
  • By 2022 two-thirds of local authorities did not have local policies. Of those that now do these vary in their application and definitions. 
  • Local authorities may underutilize their powers to improve health through reducing exposures to harmful commodities, and there is a lack of guidance on the optimal components, consistent definitions for harmful commodities and principles underpinning local commercial policies.

Overview

Commercial advertising and sponsorship drive the consumption of harmful commodities but local authorities have considerable powers to reduce such exposures. 

Outdoor advertising and local sponsorship are a major source of harmful commodity exposure to the public and, therefore, have the potential to shape ‘harmful commodity industry’ (HCI) harms. The WHO recommends the best ways to prevent non-communicable diseases include interventions restricting the advertising and sponsorship of unhealthy products. Other research has also shown that reducing exposure to unhealthy product marketing reduces their consumption, and therefore, regulatory policies are essential to create healthier local environments and improve population health. Local authorities have proven capacity to take effective action in shaping local environments to reduce the negative health impacts of HCIs, for example using the planning system to regulate hot food takeaway outlets.

The study aimed to characterise local commercial policies across all English local authorities. It found that:

  • Only a third (106) of local authorities in England had a relevant policy (32%).
  • These included restrictions on tobacco (91%), gambling (79%), alcohol (74%) and/or less healthy foods (24%).
  • Policy prevalence was lowest in the East of England (22%), North East (25%) and North West (27%).
  • Policy prevalence was higher in urban areas (36%) than rural areas (28%).
  • There were a lower number of policies in the least (27%) compared with the most (38%) deprived areas.
  • Definitions in policies varied, particularly for alcohol and less healthy foods.

The study concluded that English councils have power to act and make significant changes to minimise the negative impacts from harmful commodities. However, they currently underutilize their levers to reduce the negative impacts of HCI marketing, particularly concerning less healthy foods. Standardised guidance, including clarity on definitions and application, could inform more local policy development.

Key findings

The research findings suggest that almost two-thirds (63%) of all English local authorities in 2022 (a total of 210 councils) did not appear to have any form of local policy concerning advertising and sponsorship of harmful commodities in their local area. The 106 policies that were identified were very different, lacking consensus regarding components, definitions and application. 

Luckily there has been an upward trend in these policies being implemented and we have seen this continue since 2022 with increasingly more councils bringing in advertising policies which address public health, particularly in terms of restricting advertising for unhealthy food and drink. 

The least deprived fifth of local authorities had a 27% prevalence of policies, compared with 38% in the most deprived. Five of the top 10 most deprived local authorities had a policy covering one or more harmful commodities.

This is good news as Adfree Cities research has found that there are considerably more outdoor advertising sites in more deprived areas which compounds existing health and other inequalities. Local authorities seem to be implementing advertising restrictions as a way to address public health issues that are more severe in specific communities, which will also have a bigger impact in those areas as there is more advertising there. 

Most often the policies considered three of the four harmful commodity categories which were included in the study, and consistently applied tobacco restrictions (presumably because this is national policy). Gambling and alcohol were commonly considered but alcohol varied greatly in its definition and application. Only one quarter of policies included restrictions on less healthy foods, and definitions of products were often ambiguous. 

Overall, there were variations in both the presence of, and detail within, policies across the country.

Harmful commodity definitions

Across policies, the definitions of each harmful commodity varied. Tobacco was the most clearly and consistently defined, drawing a clear line prohibiting tobacco and substitute tobacco product promotion. Presumably this is because this is national policy with all tobacco advertising on billboards ending in 2003 following the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002. Some current local policies elaborated further with closely related details, including e-cigarettes and tobacco paraphernalia. This has developed further since the research to also include vaping products. Most recently Sheffield Council have included in their policy that vaping and e-cigarette products would be “permitted only if advert is part of a stop smoking campaign, featuring a product that is not owned or part-owned by the Tobacco Industry.” 

Terminology and scope with regard to gambling was also largely consistent, with some explicit clauses for exceptions, such as the National and local society/authority lotteries. More recently the public health implications of gambling advertising have been discussed leading to a call for a total ban nationally and highlighted by some councils specifically, for example in Bradford.

Alcohol was considered in 74% of policies but had large variation in terms of prohibited products or consumption. For example, some policies only prohibited specific alcohol scenarios: ‘encourages excessive or underage use’ and ‘binge drinking’. Again, Sheffield Council have gone further in their 2024 policy to include “Alcoholic drinks and low/zero alcohol drinks from brands synonymous with alcohol” to acknowledge the issue of ‘alibi marketing’ and the importance of reducing harmful brand awareness. 

In the few policies in 2022 that considered less healthy foods (24%), the UK Nutrient Profiling Model definition of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) was used comprehensively in nine policies (36% of all less healthy foods considerations) but not consistently. More often, ambiguous terminology, such as ‘unhealthy eating’ or ‘fast foods’ was applied, or in specific cases: ‘fast food when promoted to minors’ or ‘not an appropriate site’. This has continued in the policies implemented since then.

There is evidence of the beneficial impact of the TfL HFSS restrictions, especially in reducing inequalities,, and similar restrictions are being embedded across more local authorities. More councils are also adopting the Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight, which provides tools for LAs to promote healthy weight. This initiative is continuing to collect case studies and evaluations to share evidence of its impact, and introducing advertising restrictions could be an important element of this work. LAs who have led on the implementation of local commercial policies (e.g. Bristol City Council, the TfL policy and Sustain’s ‘Healthier Food Advertising Policy Toolkit’) serve as an example for this work, and now other councils have gone even further which can provide a model for even more LAs to implement detailed policies. For example, Sheffield City Council’s policy includes “foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS)” and “HFSS food and drink brands or those synonymous with, including food ordering services, where no food or drink product is featured directly.”

Some policies in the study used broad clauses covering HCIs/products, or consumer behaviours: ‘socially undesirable or unhealthy acts’, ‘conflict with the wider promotion of healthy and active lifestyles’ and ‘undue publicity to inappropriate behaviour or lifestyles’. These can be widely interpreted to include public health or environmental impacts and link to various current and future council policies which is useful. However, they could also be subject to challenge or watering down because they are not specific enough. 

Environmental health was another common harmful commodity consideration in some policies (e.g. fossil fuels and ‘high carbon’ products). Increasingly councils are beginning to include these HCI categories in their policies even though there is no clear definition of this. Polling in 2022 also found that 68% of UK adults would support restrictions on advertising for products and industries that make the climate emergency worse. Legal advice commissioned by New Weather Institute and Adfree Cities also supports this position confirming that introducing low carbon advertising policies is lawful, proportionate and necessary.

Bus stop ad for Tui holidays.

Recommendations

  • Local authorities should better utilise their powers to improve health through reducing exposures to harmful commodities by implementing restrictions on advertising and sponsorship content on the sites that they control.
  • Standardised guidance, based on good practice, including clarity on definitions and application, with case study examples and training tools, should be developed for England to encourage effective implementation of these policies across all local authorities.

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