People often talk about the academic standing of Canadian children. What’s often ignored, however, is the direct line running from healthy eating and keeping active to mental health and academic performance.
Many of Canada’s children have never had poorer diets or been less active. Meanwhile, junk food ads have targeted and brainwashed children, jeopardizing the wellbeing of future generations. This is nothing short of a crisis that will only get worse without action.
Now, Canada’s Senate has shown its commitment to changing that.
Last week, senators passed Bill S-228, the Child Health Protection Act, which seeks to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children under the age of 17. This would include packaging, advertising and all other forms of promotion directed at children.
This initiative recognizes that our children need protection from unfettered and pervasive marketing that is damaging to their health.
We know the rates of the overweight and obese have been rising and that the number of obese children has tripled since 1980. Today, almost one in three Canadian children — and more concerning, 62.5% of young indigenous children — are overweight or obese. Health experts warn that when you become obese at an early age, your risk of long-term chronic illnesses rises significantly.
Because we have a national health care system, it makes good sense to take preventative action. The rising costs of health care are simply not sustainable if we do not do everything possible to encourage Canadians to make healthy lifestyle choices, including eating a healthy diet.
Prohibiting advertising to children is not a new concept. In fact, the first law to prohibit broadcast advertising directed at children in Canada was introduced in 1974, but it died before getting through Parliament. In 2010, a consensus statement was issued following a federal-provincial meeting of health ministers. It endorsed taking action to protect children from the marketing of foods and beverages high in fat, sugar or sodium.
That was seven years ago. It is about time we did something.
The decision to put forward this bill was triggered by the study on obesity, published by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, in addition to insights gained from conversations with advocates and stakeholders, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, beginning in 2014.
In spite of what some industry and media people claim, there is now international consensus among health stakeholders that the pervasive marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat has a negative impact on health — and when directed at children, that impact can be devastating. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on this kind of marketing. Understanding why is easy — it works.
Private corporations operate on a business plan that rewards them when they invest in successful marketing campaigns that increase their market share and drive value to their bottom line. Nowhere does it say that what they produce has to be healthy.
But society will pay in the long run if parents are unable to resist their children’s pestering for unhealthy foods. And it’s our vulnerable children and youth who will suffer the impacts of ill health. We owe it to them and to the sustainability of our health care system to protect children from being targets of ads for unhealthy food that are designed to be addictive.
Parents should be the last line of defence — not the only line of defence — against the pressures of omnipresent marketing, that follows their kids everywhere.
With this important bill now in the House of Commons, Canadians should count on their members of parliament to do the right thing.
Nancy Greene Raine is a senator representing British Columbia and is a gold-medal, Olympian skier. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.
This article appeared in the October 10, 2017 edition of The Province.
Learn more about youth obesity from the World Health Organization.