In a move to combat obesity rates and encourage healthy eating, the U.K. announced earlier this week a ban on daytime television and internet ads promoting unhealthy food.
While Britain’s new rules specifically target the trend of children leaving primary school overweight, some are wondering whether Canadian policymakers should be following their lead to potentially implement a junk food ban of their own.
According to several nutritionists and food policy experts, any sort of ban or tax on unhealthy food would likely not have much of an impact on Canadians’ eating habits as a whole, but would still remain a step in the right direction — especially when paired with other policies put in place to discourage unhealthy eating.
According to obesity expert and University of Ottawa associate professor Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, implementing an ad ban on junk food is “absolutely an obvious choice” given the saturation of junk foods online and on television.
Freedhoff said, though, that Canada should instead be pushing for multiple policies to stave off Canada’s obesity rates, likening the ban for junk food ads to that of one of many different “sandbags” which would help stop a flood.
“Reducing the exposure to those ads is certainly not going to hurt and likely is one of the sandbags that will be required if we want to see our food environment change,” said Freedhoff.
According to Obesity Canada, the prevalence of adult obesity has increased at least three-fold in the last 30 years. That prevalence, as well as the unintended costs of obesity rates, are also projected to increase over the next several years.
In a statement to Global News, Obesity Canada spokesperson Brad Hussey said that there was not enough evidence to suggest obesity rates would be impacted by any junk food taxes or bans.
While such bans may help in making the food environment healthier for everyone, Hussey said that science tells us that the drivers of obesity are much more complicated than “energy imbalance alone.”
“Prevention and treatment approaches must address all of the drivers of obesity if they are to be successful,” wrote Hussey in an email.
“In other words, junk food/fast food taxes, bans, and advertising limits are health promotion strategies — the framing of these interventions as obesity prevention strategies is not helpful in the obesity context.”
The idea of limiting the advertising of junk food, especially to that of children, has already been considered here in Canada before.
Bill S-228, which was introduced in 2016, would have limited companies’ ability to advertise unhealthy food to all children under 13 years of age in Canada.
The bill had cited evidence of such foods being advertised to children could later contribute to excess consumption of sodium, saturated fat and sugars, later increasing the risk of chronic diseases.
Many health experts advocating for the bill were hoping that it would somehow have an effect on cutting down childhood obesity rates, but the bill later died after going to the Senate in 2019.
Looking back, Freedhoff said he would much rather see many more “sandbags” in Canada as opposed to just a junk food ad ban towards children.
“For instance, having a national school food program that serves healthy nutritious foods to all of the kids in the public school system,” he said.
According to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University, any move to limit or tax certain food products should be done more carefully and with some “prudence.”
“Because it’s a matter of choice — what’s important, I think, is that people are well informed about what they’re actually buying,” said Charlebois.
“Transparency is a big, big thing.”
He pointed specifically at the concepts of sugar taxes or sin taxes as being ineffective and argued that people would instead go to other places to get their “sugar fix” or that the companies would just absorb the effect of the tax on their prices.
Instead, Charlebois said that it might be more effective to make some policy changes upstream — directly with the way companies handle and produce their products instead.
In the U.K., for example, Charlebois said that companies were “encouraged” to limit the amount of sugar they put in their products as opposed to being taxed directly for making them unhealthy.
“So you kind of have to really take measures that will actually be effective and will actually help governments reach their goal,” he said. “And their goal is to make people healthier and entice people to make better choices.”
— With files from Reuters and Leslie Young