An increasingly common refrain posits that obesity is the new smoking, a sentiment that is apparently shared by officials at Health Canada. The agency, which already severely restricts the advertising of tobacco products, is contemplating an outright ban on junk food advertising directed at kids under the age of 17. This is welcome news at a time when Statistics Canada says more than 14 million Canadians are overweight or obese and childhood obesity levels have tripled since 1979.
Although adults are still susceptible to marketing techniques, they are not nearly as vulnerable as children. Those exposed to junk food advertising in their formative years risk developing unhealthy and potentially life-shortening eating habits that will follow them to their graves.
The prevalence of ads promoting calorie-dense and nutrition-free food items to children is disturbing. A recent report on the health of Canadians from the Heart and Stroke Foundation examined “how industry is marketing unhealthy food and beverages directly to our children and youth, and how this is affecting their preferences and choices, their family relationships and their health.”
Researchers found that children between the ages of two and 11 are exposed to over 25 million food and beverage ads on their favourite websites in a single year. More than 90 per cent are ads for unhealthy foods — mostly processed foods, foods full of sodium and sugar. Since we’re wired to take many of our cues about what we want through both direct and indirect signals, this bombardment of temptation and focus on unhealthy choices is seriously preventing young kids from forming healthy eating patterns.
Critics focus on ‘choice’
Nevertheless, the proposed ban is not without its critics. The Consumer Choice Center, which claims to represent consumers in more than 100 countries, has come out against the proposed Canadian ban on junk food ads. In a recent press release, it claimed "[t]he proposed ban on junk food ads [...] is just another example of paternalistic government encroaching on consumer choice. […] Although curbing unhealthy choices for minors is a noble goal, eliminating TV, print, online, in store, and sponsored marketing is a gross overstep by public health officials. Ultimately, we, as a society, need to focus on education and empowering parents to ensure their children make healthy choices.”
Why not both? We can focus on educating children and empowering parents while also decreasing the detrimental effects of the daily bombardment of consumer messages targeting children. And it’s pointless to claim that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their children good eating habits. While parents can certainly be good role models for their offspring, at the end of the day today’s kids spend countless hours in front of screens — playing video games, on educational sites for school, and on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram — where advertising is ubiquitous. Even the most vigilant parent can’t possibly compete with that.
Support for advertising ban
Despite the vocal dissatisfaction of a few, it appears most Canadians agree with this initiative. A 2016 poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that 74 per cent of Canadians support a ban on advertising of processed foods and sugary drinks to children. In 1980, Quebec adopted legislation banning toy and fast food advertisements aimed at children under 13.
Although there is no recent research demonstrating a decrease in the percentage of kids eating junk food and suffering from obesity as a result of the law, an earlier study showed encouraging results. Professors Tirtha Dhar and Kathy Baylis examined Statistics Canada data collected between 1984 and 1992 and determined the ban resulted in as much as a 13 per cent decrease in fast food spending in Quebec. The researchers estimated that this decrease resulted in 11 million to 22 million fewer fast food meals consumed by children each year.
With childhood obesity rates soaring, these results should give us pause and should compel the government and health professionals to conduct new ones.
According to the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, if more than 15 per cent of a television show’s audience is children, they cannot air advertisements targeting kids. Although such rules don’t exist in the rest of Canada, they are commonplace in many other countries, like Greece and Sweden, where advertising to children under 12 is outright banned.
When marketing research confirms that children’s personal preferences can be altered and shaped by advertising, and when we know that children’s critical thinking hasn’t yet developed to the point of discerning the harmful from the harmless, not only is it not fair play to allow them to be exposed to these commercials, it’s ethically questionable.
Parents fret over their kids’ well being and aim to protect them from all harm — whether it be guiding them away from a hot stove or ensuring their online privacy and protection from sexual predators and bullies — but for some reason we’re allowing large corporations, whose only goal is profit, to groom these vulnerable little adults-in-the-making and establish early on that their self worth is attached to something they can buy. It’s time to rein them in.