Health Canada is quietly shelving a 2015 promise of strict regulation of food ads targeting children. The department in Access To Information memos said it was wary of a court challenge by industry.
“The proposed policy would ideally have the following elements: it would be backstopped by legislation or regulation to ensure compliance while giving flexibility to get industry buy-in, which would minimize the risk of a lengthy court challenge,” said a department memo Updates On Health Eating Initiatives.
The department said it must “bring together health stakeholders and industry to negotiate graduated levels of marketing compliance.” A statutory ad ban would only be enacted “should we not see progress”.
The memo was written for a 2016 meeting of staff from Health Canada and the Department of Agriculture, at the same time a bill was introduced in the Senate advocating a strict, statutory ban on junk food marketing. The health department in a 2015 Ministerial Mandate letter promised it would be “introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Québec.”
Québec’s 1980 Consumer Protection Act – the only legislation of its kind in Canada – prohibits all TV marketing to pre-teen viewers. The law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1989. Health Canada did not explain why it feared a court challenge of similar federal legislation.
Staff instead are “proposing a collaborative model to restrict advertising ‘unhealthy’ food and beverages to children,” said the memo. Regulators acknowledged junk food marketing is pervasive and unhealthy.
“Ninety percent of foods advertised to children are high in salt, sugar or fat, and low in fibre, including fast food items, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, sweets and chips,” wrote staff. “Food advertising aimed at children directly affects their food preferences, consumption patterns and food purchase requests.”
“There is growing concern in Canada and internationally about the negative impact of marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages on children’s nutritional health,” said the memo. “Marketing is powerful. Modern marketing is sophisticated and uses powerful psychological approaches that are designed to appeal to children’s emotions.”
“Why Is Industry Targeting Children?”
Childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980, according to the Canadian Medical Association. One advertiser, McDonald’s Canada, targets campaigns to reach between 75 and 90 percent of households nationwide, according to company filings in a 2012 trademarks case. The company sells $140 million worth of Big Macs each year in Canada, by official estimate.
Senate Bill S-228 An Act To Amend The Food And Drugs Act would prohibit advertising of “unhealthy foods” that is “directed primarily at children” under 17. Definitions of unhealthy products, and details of any ban on TV marketing and sports sponsorships, would be determined by regulation within two years of the bill’s passage.
“Either we take action now or taxpayers will need to pay increased health care costs in the future,” Senator Nancy Greene Raine (Conservative-B.C.), sponsor of the bill, earlier told the Senate. “Canada is facing a crisis with the rising rates of obesity that are impacting the lives of our children.”
Greene Raine estimated food manufacturers and retailers spend more than $1 billion a year in marketing food to children under 13. “Why is industry targeting children?” said Greene Raine; “There is no doubt that marketing to kids is working, and also that children are strong influences in the choices made by parents.”
The Senator’s bill is currently awaiting Third Reading. Cabinet had promised to introduce its own legislation this term.
“Part of my main mandate was to address healthy food for kids,” Health Minister Dr. Jane Philpott told reporters last October 6, two weeks after her department wrote its memo. “This is absolutely something that will be part of the whole package of issues we are going to be addressing.”
By Tom Korski