Capital News Online: The politics of health

You know those little minion toys advertised with McDonald’s meals? Plans for new federal regulations on marketing unhealthy food to kids could mean the end of this type of hook-line-and-sinker approach in Canada.

The Liberal government’s latest mandates for the public health of children are a small step in the right direction, say health advocacy groups, but the step could be bigger.

On Nov. 13, mandate letters were sent out to ministers by the Prime Minister’s Office. The letter to Health Minister Dr. Jane Philpott includes, “introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec.”

“Unhealthy” is the key word here. According to the World Obesity Federation, in Canada, 29 per cent of boys and 26 per cent of girls are overweight. A Quebec study done in 2010 by Dr.Linda Pagani found that excessive watching of television among young children leads to poor dietary choices and increases in body mass.

The new federal mandate would follow through with the campaign promise the Liberals made to promote healthier living among children. The proposed regulations would be based on laws that already exist in Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act, which has been in place for more than 30 years.

One example of the way this law has worked to restrict marketing junk food to children is in the guilty plea case of Burger King in May 2009. Burger King was charged under the Quebec law for advertising free toys with the purchase of a meal. Making food more appealing by offering toy incentives to children is a common strategy with chain restaurants.

The Quebec ad is not a ban on junk-food ads; it’s a ban on all advertising directed at children. And that is the most sensible way to go and it’s the way that is most legally defensible.— Bill Jeffrey

The Quebec law prohibits commercial advertising directed to children under the age of 13. There are a few countries that have similar provisions to that of Quebec, such as Norway, Sweden and Brazil.

“Quebec was the world leader,” said Bill Jeffrey. “And all the others followed that.”

Bill Jeffrey, the national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit health advocacy organization, which focuses on nutrition and food safety, said he’s pleased by the government’s initiative, but argued they could do better.

“The age cut off of 13 is too low. I think it’s justifiable to have an age cut off as high as 16 or 18,” said Jeffrey. “The extent to which companies have enjoyed impunity from the law for so long just reflects the power of these mostly large companies with enormous assets.”

Unhealthy food ads could be regulated by federal government in Canada.

The new federal mandate for regulations on advertising “unhealthy” food to children would put limitations on what big companies can advertise in Canada. © Tanya Kirnishni

He also said the federal government needs to be aware of the way the wording of the law might impact its effectiveness. If they choose to target “unhealthy” food, that word would need to be well defined to be useful in applying the law.

“The Quebec ad is not a ban on junk-food ads; it’s a ban on all advertising directed at children,” said Jeffrey. “And that is the most sensible way to go and it’s the way that is most legally defensible.”

While these suggestions offer ways for the government to improve or learn from the existing Quebec model, Jeffrey also points out there are pitfalls that need to be avoided. In the Quebec law, an exemption states that a company can advertise during children’s programming if it can establish that the product and advertisement are not intended to excite the interests of children.

That means companies like McDonald’s could still advertise foods such as coffee and salads during Saturday morning cartoons because those ads would be aimed at an older audience. But even if they held no appeal to children it would still put the brand in their heads.

The child then has the chance to influence their parents. They might point out that McDonald’s has all the things they eat so they have a reason to go there.

“It better arms them for pestering their parents,” said Jeffrey. “That’s a loophole that I think needs to be closed.”

Call for a national school food program

“In the context of the national food policy, we’d like that to start with children,” said Sasha McNicoll, co-ordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food at Food Secure Canada (FSC).

She found the mandate encouraging but said the restrictions on marketing unhealthy food don’t go far enough to promote healthy living. She advocates for the inclusion of a national school food program.

“Canada is one of the only industrial countries that doesn’t have a school food program and we think that that’s shameful,” said McNicoll.

Some children are showing up to school with full stomachs and some are showing up with empty stomachs — that creates inequities in learning.— Sasha McNicoll

In the United States, The National School Lunch Program offers low-cost or free lunches to children every school day. This program focuses on offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, as well as reducing trans fats and sodium.

The goal is to make sure kids have at least one good meal for the school day. In Canada, five per cent of children live in a food-insecure home where they might not always get enough to eat, according to a 2012 study by Statistics Canada.

“Some children are showing up to school with full stomachs and some are showing up with empty stomachs — that creates inequities in learning,” said McNicoll. “So we think that it’s really crucial for the health of our children and for educational outcomes.”

School food programs are not consistent across Canada. There are many provinces that are funding school food programs, but it varies from province to province and school board to school board.

“Schools across the country within recent years have regarded food sold at schools as a vehicle for raising money for those schools, so there is a strong inclination to make it palatable to children,” said Jeffrey.

A government-funded national school food program would provide nutritious meals so that schools wouldn’t have to entice children to buy less healthy food. On Wednesday, the FSC sent a letter petitioning the minister of health asking for a national food program to be made a priority and to be included in the throne speech.

“We ask that they start by sharing the cost of the programs that are already running on the ground,” said McNicoll.

For father and business owner Sean Bai, these nutrition-based regulations are not enough to convert children to healthier living. He says the issue with the food provided by current provincial school programs is that it’s unpalatable to children when stripped down to simply nutritional values. For Bai, the regulations are lacking.

“They’ve gone to theory, but as parent you are more day-to-day practical and the practicality aspect has been entirely taken out,” said Bai. “As a parent, at the end of the day I want my kids to eat healthy of course, but I want them to eat.”

What did we eat that is screwing up the next generation of kids?— Sean Bai

Bai’s Subway restaurant at Carleton Place sometimes provides school lunches and has to adhere to Ontario’s provincial nutrition standards for school food, which includes things like using whole wheat bread over white bread.

“As business owners, we have to be concerned with the food that we’ve been eating, that [our children] are now allergic to everything. What did we eat that is screwing up the next generation of kids?” said Bai. “That’s the reality that we live in now; it’s not just peanut allergies.”

He said there needs to be more emphasis on educating children about nutrition and not just pushing the rules on them in hopes that they will adopt them into their lifestyles.

“The eating healthy lifestyle won’t change with only the food that’s consumed, it’s a lifestyle that needs to change altogether,” said Bai. “These days, kids all have cellphones and computers and it’s a sedentary lifestyle. They’re vicariously living through media instead of living in fact.”

 

[Header © Tanya Kirnishni]

Tanya Kirnishni is a Master of Journalism student in the home stretch of her degree. Whatever else she might be is still up in the air.

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