Bill banning junk food ads to kids may die in the Senate

Proponents of legislation to limit junk food advertising to kids are worried that their bill might not be passed. Getty Images

A bill that would ban the advertising of unhealthy foods to children could soon die on the order paper as the Senate rises for the end of the parliamentary session.

Bill S-228, introduced back in 2016, would amend the Food and Drugs Act to limit companies’ ability to advertise unhealthy foods to children under 13 years old. It was passed by the Senate and the House of Commons, but has been stuck in the Senate again since last fall.

Now with just a few sitting days left, unless the Senate votes soon to accept the House amendments, the bill will die and its proponents will have to try again with a new bill after the next election.

That would be a problem, according to Dr. Tom Warshawski, a B.C. pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation. He and other doctors have been working together for years to get legislation passed.

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“Advertising works,” he said. “Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars marketing these products to children. They have much better data than we do, in terms of return on investment.”

While he says he can’t prove that eliminating ads for junk food would cut down childhood obesity rates – similar bans in other countries are quite new so haven’t shown results yet – he’s hopeful there would be an effect.

“All the evidence moving forward is that if you stop the advertising, you will stop the consumption and you will get less of the resulting illnesses.”

In 2015, about 12 per cent of Canadian children were classified as obese, according to Statistics Canada data.

One of the bill’s opponents in the Senate, Sen. Pamela Wallin, said she’s not against the idea of limiting advertising to children or combatting childhood obesity. What she does object to is the idea of having some foods labelled “unhealthy.”

“It basically declares that food that you might want to sell domestically or export internationally is being deemed by its own government to be unhealthy,” she said.

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“So that would be a huge, huge problem for the 65,000 grain farmers that exist in this country and many more that work in the dairy industry and in all the assorted businesses, whether it’s food stands and food trucks or beverage makers.”

Warshawski isn’t so sure. Most of Canada’s agricultural exports are unprocessed foods, he said. “This bill in no way applies to them.”

WATCH: (From 2017) Where’s the evidence linking junk food ads to obesity?

Click to play video: 'Where’s the evidence linking junk food ads to obesity?'
Where’s the evidence linking junk food ads to obesity?

Wallin said she would have no problem with a blanket ban on food advertising to children – as was in the bill’s original text.

Because the current text includes the word “unhealthy” though, she asked to have it moved to committee for further study, rather than putting the bill to a vote.

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It would be up to Health Canada to define what “unhealthy” means through regulations, according to Warshawski. Health Canada, on its website, said that these regulations would restrict foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

If the bill doesn’t pass by the end of the session, Warshawski says his organization will try again during and after the election.

“I think that the public has to look at the issue and ask each party, ‘How do you sit on this particular bill and this issue of protecting children from the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages?’ and then vote accordingly,” he said.

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