Purpose - The intention of this paper is to encourage debate among ethical researchers on this very important issue. Research necessary to underpin health education and health promotion is often controversial and often involves vulnerable populations such as young people and children. It is essential that the rights of these respondents are protected in every research project. Current research ethical approval processes aim to protect these rights but have the potential to undermine the viability of research projects in this area. This paper addresses two ethical issues associated with this research: the approval process and respondent consent. Design/methodology/approach - The paper looks at the codified antecedents of common ethical guidelines and discusses their application in a particular but not unusual health education research project. Findings - The paper recommends the adoption of a simplified approval process and greater appreciation of the merits of researching among students in a classroom setting, when these students are an appropriate target market. Research limitations/implications - Much health education research falls between medical research and marketing research. Guidelines for this sort of research need to be developed through discussion among practitioners and academics in the field. Originality/value - Adoption of this simplified approach will facilitate more important research being undertaken without jeopardizing the rights or the welfare of the vulnerable respondents involved.