In fight over ads aimed at kids, retailers and food makers count on Trudeau’s ‘evidence-based policy’ promise

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WATCH: Where's the evidence linking junk food ads to obesity? – Sep 15, 2017

Editor’s Note: On October 2, 2017, this article was modified to clarify the context of the comments made by University of Ottawa professor Monique Potvin Kent in response to a question from Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen at a June 7, 2017 meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

OTTAWA — With Parliament set to resume work Monday after its summer recess, a Conservative senator is counting on support from Liberals in the House of Commons to pass a law which would restrict or ban food advertising aimed at kids.

Studies have shown that kids may be exposed to as many as 1,000 television ads a year from fast food chains. Each child may see thousands more food ads on smartphones, tablets, and computers. On top of that, food chains and food makers are frequent sponsors of youth activities such as minor sports.

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For Senator Nancy Greene Raine, the Conservative and former Olympic skiing champion who is sponsoring S-288: The Child Health Protection Act, all these ads contribute to child obesity in Canada.

READ MORE: Childhood obesity linked to TVs in the bedroom: study

But retailers, food makers, and advertisers are pushing back. They say there is no evidence exposure to food advertising produces obese children and, in any event, Statistics Canada data shows that, as the prevalence of screens — smartphones, tablets and the like — spread through Canada’s child population from 2004 to 2015, obesity rates actually dropped.

Moreover, that advertising supports jobs among food makers, retailers, and creators of children’s television content.  Corus, the parent company of Global News, is among the companies registered to lobby against S-228.

Raine concedes that banning or restricting ads aimed at kids will not, by itself, reduce obesity rates.

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“To solve the problem, you have to attack it from all sides and I think for sure a decrease in the promotion of unhealthy food and beverages is the low-hanging fruit,” Raine said in an interview from Kamloops, B.C. “It’s easy to do. Some people don’t like it but certainly, it can be done.”

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In testimony earlier this year, nutrition and health experts provided the Senate’s Social Affairs, Science and Technology committee with reams of statistics documenting the rapid rise and spread in advertising aimed at children on social media platforms, on the Web and on legacy platforms such as television.

“Mandatory food and beverage marketing restrictions are an effective strategy to improve our children’s food intake, obesity levels and health,” Monique Potvin Kent, an assistant professor at the medical school at the University of Ottawa, told the committee on June 7.

READ MORE: McDonald’s faces class action lawsuit in Quebec for advertising to kids

That said, Potvin Kent said that it would be impossible to connect a restriction or prohibition on ads aimed at kids to future changes in obesity rates among Canadian children.

“Research-wise, it would be impossible to tie those two things together. There are too many intervening variables to be able to craft that type of study. From a researcher’s perspective, that study is impossible,” Kent said in response to a question from Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen. “To tie a health outcome that is over here to a policy that is so far away from the person, there are too many other variables that could also have an impact. It’s not to say that the policy might not have an impact; it’s just that it’s impossible to measure.”

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Statistics Canada and University of Manitoba researchers have found that, even with the explosion of advertising aimed at kids in the last decade or so, obesity rates in Canada have been falling.

In 2004, 34.3 per cent of Canadian kids were found by StatsCan to be either overweight or obese. But by 2015, that number had dropped to 30.9 per cent.

A 2016 study by University of Manitoba researchers, published in the Canadian Medical Journal, found a similar trend that obesity rates among children declined between 2004 and 2013 from 30.7 per cent to 27 per cent.

READ MORE: Childhood obesity rates fall in Canada for the first time in years: study

Separately, Health Canada has spent the summer canvassing for reaction on two options to restrict food ads aimed at kids. First, it is considering banning all ads where the food product at issue contains no more than between five to 15 per cent the recommended daily maximums for fat, sugar or sodium.

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The second option would kill all food ads aimed at kids from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and almost all day on weekends.

Opponents of Raine’s bill and of Health Canada’s proposals are counting on the Trudeau government to make good on its frequent boast that it prefers “evidence-based policy” to kill S-228 if it reaches the House of Commons.

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“This is going to affect not only jobs in the food industry side, it’s going to affect jobs in the cultural creation side,” said Ron Lund, CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers.

Some broadcasters of children’s programming also run advertising promoting healthier food choices in addition to those from other food makers and food chains. As an example, Corus, which includes Teletoon and Disney Channel among its stable of specialty channels, has a program called “Kids Food Nation” which consists of a website supported by broadcast ads.

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Moreover, the ad industry argues that many major food companies adhere to a voluntary set of guidelines under the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in which they agree to limit or eliminate the advertising of some products depending on the audience likely to view those ads.

READ MORE: Canadian kids bombarded with more than 25M junk food and drink ads online every year

Opponents of the ad restrictions say the objective — improving the health of Canadian kids — is an excellent one but argue restrictions on advertising or marketing of products to kids is unlikely to help achieve that objective.

“Our worry is the government is moving forward with an approach that doesn’t at all think about the fact that this multi-dimensional issue requires a multi-dimensional solution,” said Satinder Chera, president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association.

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Raine’s bill is at second reading in the Senate and, if it clears third reading there, it will have to go to the House of Commons for consideration by that chamber. There, Raine’s bill will only see success if the governing Liberals use their majority to make it law.

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So far, Raine has had some encouraging words from government MPs.

“This is a non-partisan issue. This is an issue about family and about children’s health.”

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