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Should Canada ban junk food ads aimed at kids?

A new study on regulating junk food ads aimed at kids compares approaches taken by different countries and international organizations and finds that health outcomes can vary considerably depending on the regulatory framework put in place. For Canada, this means the federal government’s upcoming plans to set limits on ads aimed at children will succeed or fail depending on the nutritional standards they put forward.

Debate is growing over how best to regulate the marketing of junk food to kids, with health advocates calling for outright bans against advertising unhealthy foods and beverages and, predictably, representatives from the advertising industry pushing for less stringent controls.

But as childhood overweight and obesity rates continue to hover at dangerously high levels (27 per cent of Canadian children at last measure), organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada are saying that now is the time to act.

“Pushing for legislation to restrict food and beverage marketing to children and youth may seem like a bold measure,” says Diego Marchese, Interim CEO and Executive Vice President at Heart and Stroke, “but given experts’ prediction that today’s children may be the first generation to have poorer health and shorter lifespans than their parents, we need to be bold.”

Heart and Stroke and many others like it argue that the impact of advertising on children’s eating habits has already been well-studied, showing that today’s youth are exposed to much more marketing on a daily basis through various media sources than kids in past generations.

“The family television that used to sit in the living room delivering ads to children and youth at certain times of the day still exists, and it is still a dominant medium,” reads a report put out earlier this year by Heart and Stroke. “However there are now multiple and often portable devices and screens that offer entertainment 24/7.”

But if regulations are needed, what nutritional standards should they follow?

The new study from researchers with the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto used a list of over 15,000 prepackaged foods available in Canada and looked at how they fared under four different, well-known nutritional models —the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe model, the Pan American Health Organization’s model along with a modified version of the Pan American model.

The researchers found that when applied to the Canadian context, results varied considerably in terms of which products would be subject to a ban. The Pan American model, for example, would permit only 15.8 per cent of the foods on the list while the WHO’s model would allow for 29.8 per cent. The most permissive was found to be the Australia-New Zealand model which permitted almost half (49.0 per cent) of prepackaged foods on the list.

“This highlights the importance of carefully evaluating the characteristics underlying a model that is being developed or adapted for use in a specific public health policy,” say the study’s authors.

“Where total bans of the commercial marketing of foods and beverages to children are not introduced, a relatively stringent and mandatory nutrient profile model that uses clearly defined categories and exemptions, and that is consistent with other nutrition-related policies in the jurisdiction (e.g., front-of-package labeling system), should be considered,” they write.

In August, Health Canada wrapped up two months of consultation on food advertising restrictions, while in September, Canada’s Senate passed the Child Health Protection Act on the same issue.

The new study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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About The Author /

Jayson MacLean
Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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