Comment: The kids are not alright

Marketing unhealthy food to kids is taking advantage of their inability to make rational decisions

According to Statistics Canada, nearly a third of Canadian children are overweight or obese.

Most would agree that protecting children should be our country’s utmost priority.

Protecting children from unhealthy food products and fast-food chains has been the subject of many conversations. Ads for sugary food products geared towards children have been contested for years and some countries have opted to ban them, one way or another. The United Kingdom, the latest country to do so, has now banned TV advertising for food products high in fat, salt, and sugar between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

In Canada, there has already been an attempt to regulate ads aimed toward children. Bill S-228, known as the Child Health Protection Act, was introduced with the intention of restricting the marketing of food and beverage products high in salt, saturated fat and sugar to children aged 12 years and younger. However, Bill S-228 never received further consideration by the federal government due to the 2019 election. While Parliament has not done anything since, Health Canada has provided guidelines for industry to consider, and it is now examining new U.K. rules on advertising.

Meanwhile, our own food industry just recently released a ‘Code for the Responsible Advertising of Food and Beverage Products to Children.’ A coalition, which includes most major processors and restaurants in Canada, chose not to wait for Ottawa to regulate this advertising. The announcement mentions that the code exceeds Health Canada’s recommendations. Perhaps, but many Canadians have been skeptical of self-regulating proposals coming from industry. When it comes to public health issues, Canadians tend to trust governments more than industry.

There is some science to not wanting marketing to persuade young consumers. Recent developments in neuroscience have shown that younger children’s cognitive development prevents them from making rational decisions when watching advertising and can skew judgment on what products are desirable. And marketing is all about creating desires. Many countries have recognized this issue and have since regulated the industry. Mexico, Iran, Chile, and many European countries have regulated marketing practices for food products.

According to Statistics Canada, nearly a third of Canadian children are overweight or obese, and many suspect that the number of children who are obese in Canada may have gone up in recent months. Lockdowns and continuing public safety measures have kept many children away from organized sports and physical activities and put a toll on our youth’s overall health. This is one challenge our regulators will have to keep in mind, whether they decide to regulate advertising to children or not.

But regulating advertising to children is not as simple as one may think. First, television is not how most children take in information these days. Internet streaming services and social media are the main vehicles now used by many of us. Regulating anything on these platforms can be difficult. In 1980, Quebec imposed a ban on advertisements for toys and food aimed at children under 13 in print and electronic media. That ban has had mixed results since many people in the province will watch media content broadcasted from outside the province. Also, food companies now advertise to older children, which makes the 13-year-old threshold difficult to implement, in many social and commercial settings.

Bill C-10, aimed at updating Canada’s Broadcasting Act would have given Ottawa more power to regulate more popular internet streaming services, such as Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and Netflix. Compliance for any rules would be expected of everyone as it is right now for traditional broadcasters such as CTV, Global and private radio stations. Without any of this, regulating content of many media will be challenging, if not impossible. That is just the way it is today. But with an election looming, Bill C-10 may suffer the same fate as Bill S-228 and may never see the light of day.

Beyond regulations though, lies one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to sound nutrition: education. Kids do not buy these products, but parents do. Given that children are highly vulnerable, parents should continue to act as gatekeepers of fridges and cupboards in their homes. It is critical we do not let parents off the hook in all of this, especially now. Industry will always innovate and be ahead of policy and regulations aimed at banning certain practices. When it comes to food, our best defence is good, responsible parenting.

Over time, as a society, we get to decide the rights and wrongs by asking governments to act. Misguided advertising aimed at children by the food industry may very well be one of these cases. But in the meantime, since industry has undoubtedly recognized that we have a problem by releasing its own code to limit advertising to children, we ought to give this a shot and see what happens over the next few years. But Ottawa should certainly put industry on notice. There is nothing more precious in our communities than our children.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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