Corporate political activity in the context of unhealthy food advertising restrictions across Transport for London: A qualitative case study

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1003695
JournalPLoS Medicine
Volume18
Issue number9
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sep 2021

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