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Artillery Row

Don’t ban the billboards

Campaigns against advertising are pure public health fanaticism

The World Snooker Championship has been held in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre since 1977. In its glory days, the tournament was sponsored by cigarette brands but that came to an end after Labour banned tobacco sponsorship in 1999 and the game fell on hard times until the legalisation of gambling advertising in 2007. For the last decade it has usually been sponsored by betting companies although last year it was sponsored by the online motor dealer Cazoo. 

The whole thing is reminiscent of those “loony left” councils of the 1980s

World Snooker may have to find a new sponsor soon because Sheffield City Council has just banned billboards not only for gambling but for cars on all authority-owned hoardings. E-cigarettes have also been included in the ban. If that were not enough, the ban covers foods deemed to be high in fat, sugar and salt, “fossil fuels-related brands”, airlines and airports, petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles, “sexual or pornography-orientated entertainment materials”, food ordering services, “certain breast or infant milk formulas”, alcoholic drinks, “low/zero alcohol drinks from brands synonymous with alcohol” and payday loans. It even includes some products which are never advertised because they are against the law (guns and “illegal drugs”) and products for which advertising has already been banned (tobacco). 

The whole thing is reminiscent of those “loony left” councils of the 1980s that provided so much content for The Sun. Sheffield Council admits that the ban won’t make much difference to anything because companies will shift their advertising to privately-owned hoardings, but it makes them feel good and that’s the important thing. Green Party councillor Marieanne Elliot said that the policy is “really good, really encompassing, fair and progressive” and cited figures from AdFree Cities, a pressure group that lobbies against all corporate outdoor advertising, who claim that 60 per cent of advertisements in Sheffield are in the poorest 30 per cent of the city. This probably reflects the fact that rich people are less likely to live near major roads, but it is considered terribly unfair for some reason.

It is difficult to find out who is behind AdFree Cities, but they believe that billboards are “messing with our minds” and they are particularly concerned about advertisements for meat and dairy products, so it seems safe to assume that they are no strangers to a set of bongos. Nevertheless, this is their world now and where Sheffield leads, other virtue-signalling local authorities are bound to follow, particularly since the policy has been spearheaded by Sheffield’s director of public health, Greg Fell.

There are over 130 directors of public health in England and it is nice work if you can get it. The job comes with a six figure salary and you don’t need a medical degree. So long as you can turn up to meetings and drop phrases like “health inequalities” and “commercial determinants of health” into conversation, you’re in clover. Not knowing much about infectious diseases proved to be a handicap when COVID-19 emerged in 2020 and public health directors were left twiddling their thumbs while they waited for instructions from central government, but Greg Fell spotted an opportunity. When Boris Johnson closed the pubs on 20 March, he suggested that “whilst we are implementing emergency legislation why not go really far and ban tobacco sales”. Exactly four years later, the government brought forward legislation to do precisely that.

With COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, there is a palpable sense of relief among directors of public health that they can get back to lobbying for petty interventions in private lifestyles. Last December, Wakefield’s public health director complained that legal action from Kentucky Fried Chicken was “thwarting efforts to stop fast-food outlets near schools” in his area. There was happier news in Sunderland where the council managed to prevent a Mexican takeaway shop from opening and the public health director’s annual report focused exclusively on the “commercial determinants of health”. They are so back!

Meanwhile, Greg Fell is not merely Sheffield’s director of public health but has been elevated to president of the Association of Directors for Public Health. One of the leading beneficiaries of Britain’s reverse meritocracy, Fell does not claim that the billboard advertising ban will bring any health benefits. Instead, he says it will “set a tone”. It is a classic modern “public health” measure: costly to taxpayers, very left-wing, utterly pointless and highly newsworthy

When asked about the implications for the World Snooker Championship, Fell said “we want snooker, it’s an amazing thing to come to Sheffield, but what would happen where — a very hypothetical example — Smith & Wesson were to be the sponsor?” It does not inspire confidence that the brains behind the ban has to resort to imagining snooker being sponsored by an American handgun company, especially when there are so many actual examples he could pluck from his long list of businesses that are deemed too dangerous for Sheffielders’ eyes. Surely the relevant question is what would happen if the sponsor were to be a website where people buy and sell cars? To anyone who hasn’t had their brain fried by anti-capitalist “public health” dogma, the answer is that it would be perfectly reasonable to put their logo on a billboard.

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