News / Vancouver

Coalition battles to ban all food and drink advertising to kids in Canada

Heart and Stroke Foundation and other charity giants take on Big Junk Food with a "Stop Marketing to Kids" campaign.

Mark Collison, with the Heart and Stroke Foundation BC & Yukon, stands by a Denny's restaurant near the charity's Vancouver office. Over his shoulder is an example of common marketing oriented to children, he said.

David P. Ball / Metro

Mark Collison, with the Heart and Stroke Foundation BC & Yukon, stands by a Denny's restaurant near the charity's Vancouver office. Over his shoulder is an example of common marketing oriented to children, he said.

They're calling junk food the "new tobacco" war.

Some of Canada's largest and most influential health charities — led by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation — are girding for a battle they're comparing to their 1990s campaigns against the cigarette industry.

The new target: food and beverage advertising to children. The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition has blossomed to 10 members and 30 endorsements across Canada. And because of the risk unhealthy products could pretend to be healthy, they're pushing for a complete ban on all food and beverage advertising aimed at under-16s.

“We're seeing higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol,” explained Mark Collison, the Heart and Stroke Foundation BC & Yukon’s director of government relations and health promotion. “We've even got kids with Type 2 adult-onset diabetes now getting the disease in their late teens.

“It's become really insidious. 90 per cent of food marketed to children is high in sugar, salt and fat. Industry has no business, really, in the minds of kids.”

The coalition’s manifesto: the Ottawa Principles, a nine-point plan to stop marketing primarily targeted at children, to prevent advertising in schools and daycares, and create review and enforcement mechanisms to approve ads. They’ve proposed created an exception for non-profit nutrition campaigns.

Though the coalition’s endorsers have been in talks since 2014, the election of the federal Liberals sparked a push to formalize their campaign into a coalition in February.

In particular, Collison said the “catalyst” was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructing his appointed Minster of Health to introduce “new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec,” Trudeau wrote to Jane Philpott last November.

But the Childhood Obesity Foundation's chair, pediatrician Dr. Tom Warshowski, told Metro that doesn’t go far enough because restricting the advertising ban to “unhealthy food and beverages” would mire various product’s health claims in bureaucracy — for instance, the high-sugar hazelnut chocolate spread used to advertise its health virtues. Even fast-food restaurants salads, which appear healthy, are high in calories.

Besides, he quipped, “We don’t see carrots, cauliflower and broccoli being marketed. We’re seeing processed foods, happiness in a can, junk food.”

More than 30 per cent of children are overweight or obese, he said.

Collison brushed off fears of a "nanny state" choosing what parents can feed their kids. Advertising everything from Happy Meals to Disney-themed soda pops, the Heart and Stroke Foundation argued, has effectively "brainwashed" generations of youth who are psychologically vulnerable to marketing ploys.

“This isn't about a nanny state,” he added. “We're not telling people what to do. We're telling industry what to do: back off and let parents do their job.”

Nobody was available for an interview Monday from the Food and Consumer Products of Canada — which represents beverage and food industry nationally. But in previous statements, the organization has emphasized the importance of nutritional education for parents, and cited the industry’s efforts to reduce salt, sugar and fat content in products over time.

“The fact that we are now counter to the food industry, and media, bottom line is unfortunate,” Warshowski said. “That creates more opposition to our efforts than ever before.

“We’ve never stepped up with a policy campaign that’s going to face such entrenched opposition from industry. Tobacco would be the closest parallel.”

Advocates are not waiting to see what the federal government will actually do about it and are already meeting with health ministry officials and gearing up to push their message wider this fall. In meantime they’re broadening their coalition to send a message.

“We want to show the federal government that there is the support for them to carry on and have the courage to introduce these restrictions,” Collison said. “Just get on with the job, don't get distracted by industry.

“In a few years, we're going to hopefully see the results of these efforts — and a bending of the health care costs trajectory.”

Correction Aug. 3: The original article misstated the age range covered by the proposed marketing ban. The coalition is seeking a ban on advertising aimed at youth under 16.

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