Canadian health charities are teaming up to battle the problem of childhood obesity in a way that the food and beverage industry is not going to like. More than ten organizations have joined the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, including some of Canada’s largest and most influential health charities, to campaign against advertising junk food to children. And to avoid the risk of unhealthy products pretending to be healthy – they’re pushing for a complete ban on all food and beverage advertising aimed at people age 16 and younger.
Led by the Heart & Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation, the coalition is advocating for the adoption of the so-called “Ottawa Principles,” a nine-point plan to stop marketing primarily targeted at children, to prevent advertising in schools and childcare facilities, and create review and enforcement mechanisms to approve ads. Their proposal includes an exception for non-profit nutrition campaigns.
“We're seeing higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol,” the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Mark Collison told Metro News. “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 has been in talks since 2014, but only formalized Stop Marketing to Kids in February 2016, following the election of a new federal government last fall. Its eleven members include national organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, Dietitians of Canada and Food Secure Canada, as well as provincial organizations based in Québec, Alberta and British Columbia (BC), and the city-level group Toronto Public Health. The coalition’s more then 30 formal endorsers also hail from across the country.
Collison, who acts as the Foundation’s director of government relations and health promotion for Canada’s Western-most province and territory, BC and Yukon, said that the “catalyst” for the coalition was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s instruction to his appointed Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Philpott. Last November in his mandate letter, he encouraged her to promote public health through various means including “introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Québec.”
With more than 30 percent of children overweigh or obese, the Childhood Obesity Foundation’s chair, pediatrician Dr. Tom Warshowski, believes the restrictions should go farther. “We don’t see carrots, cauliflower and broccoli being marketed. We’re seeing processed foods, happiness in a can, junk food,” he told Metro News. Restricting the ban to “unhealthy” food and beverages allows various products to advertise health virtues and ignore unhealthy aspects such as high sugar content. Hazelnut chocolate spread is a prime example of a product that has done this for years; high calorie fast-food restaurant salads are another.
They’re gearing up for a fight. Rather than waiting to see what the government will do, advocates are already meeting with health ministry officials, broadening their coalition membership, and gearing up for a marketing push of their own this fall.
“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,” Warshowski said.