Advertising and children's health

Photo by Austin Kirk

A nation-wide ban on the marketing of unhealthy food to children under 17 has been proposed by Health Canada.

On the chopping block is everything from television, print and online advertising to product labelling and in-store displays for cereals, granola bars, chips and energy drinks.

While Quebec has had a similar ban in place since 1980 covering advertising to children under age 13, the proposed national ban is the first of its kind in Canada. Similar bans exist at various age thresholds in the U.K., Ireland, Norway and Sweden, among others.

Hasan Hutchinson, director general at Health Canada, said the agency is considering implementing a ban to cover children up to and including age 16 because older teenagers are equally impressionable. They are also beginning to make lifestyle decisions independent of their parents.

Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced a private member’s bill in late 2016 suggesting the Quebec ban be introduced nationally. At committee hearings this summer, Greene Raine said she hopes to broaden the ban to capture marketing towards older teens.

“Some products that are being marketed to teenagers are, in my mind, very harmful,” Greene Raine said, especially highly caffeinated energy drinks. In April, a South Carolina teen died from a “caffeine-induced cardiac event” after it was revealed he quickly consumed hundreds of milligrams of caffeine from coffee, soda and energy drinks.

The Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) calls the government proposal nothing less than a “complete ban on all food and beverage advertising” in the country. ACA president Ron Lund also disputes the link between food advertising and unhealthy eating.

Yet health advocates claim pressure is mounting on the government to take concrete steps to improve children’s health, beginning with the advertising ban. In Quebec, junk food consumption among youth is 13 per cent lower than in Ontario, said Jan Hux, chief science officer at Diabetes Canada. “We know that Quebec has successfully implemented this,” she said.

Health Canada concluded public consultations on the proposed ad ban in August, although some form of further consultation is expected in 2018.

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