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Trevor Hancock: Protect our kids from unhealthy advertising

As a public-health physician, I am dedicated to improving the health of the population and protecting them from harm.

As a public-health physician, I am dedicated to improving the health of the population and protecting them from harm.

Thus it is troubling to me that so often we identify a threat to health (such as tobacco, alcohol or asbestos), provide clear evidence and solid proposals to protect the health of the public — and then little or nothing is done. Too often, governments seem to err on the side of protecting industry, rather than protecting the health of the population.

Which brings me to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to our kids, especially sugar-rich products they do not need and that are contributing to the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. Here is another situation where government is not doing enough to protect us from harm.

This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Its 2017 report on the health of Canadians, ominously entitled The Kids Are Not All Right, notes predictions that “today’s children may be the first generation to have poorer health and shorter life-spans than their parents.” And they lay much of the blame on the fact that “today’s kids are bombarded with food and beverage marketing morning, noon and night, every day of the week.”

How much are kids exposed? A lot more than you might think. These days, kids are not just exposed through TV and billboards. They spend almost eight hours a day in front of screens, at home and in school, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

On average, they spend two hours watching TV, where they see “four to five food and beverage ads per hour.” The other six hours are spent on their other screens — laptops, smartphones and tablets — where they see many, many ads.

So Heart and Stroke asked Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, an expert on food and beverage marketing and children’s nutrition, to review food and beverage advertising on children’s and youth’s top 10 preferred websites.

She found that “over 90 per cent are for unhealthy foods — mostly processed foods and beverages which are high in fat, sodium or sugar.” And she found “the most frequently advertised product categories on children’s favourite websites are restaurants, cakes, cookies, ice cream and cereal”; the same is true for teens, with the addition of sugary drinks.

Online advertising is cheap, and companies can place ads on sites that appear to be — and indeed are — educational. The report notes one of the top 10 sites used by children is an educational math site, “but it is filled with ads,” including “lots of food and beverage ads.” In addition, they can create their own websites, where “advergames” — “video games with embedded advertising” — can keep kids engaged and encourage them to share the site with their friends.

The report notes that industry self-regulation of marketing to children through its own Children’s Advertising Initiative has failed; indeed, Potvin Kent found that: “Three-quarters of the unhealthy ads viewed by children and youth were from companies that participate in the CAI.”

To its great credit, the Heart and Stroke Foundation takes a strong line on all this: “Both young children and adolescents should be protected from food industry tactics.” Specifically, it calls for the federal government to “enact legislation to restrict commercial food and beverage marketing to children and youth ages 16 and under.”

And it calls upon provincial governments to “implement and enforce restrictions on the commercial marketing of foods and beverages to children and youth” and to “restrict exposure to food and beverage marketing in public places, including settings where children gather.”

These approaches have been implemented elsewhere and have been shown to work. One good example is Quebec, where advertising of all goods and services to children under 13 was banned in 1980.

A 2011 study concluded that compared to Ontario there was “a 13 per cent reduction in the likelihood to purchase fast food;” the report also noted that “Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children ages six to 11 and the highest rate of vegetable and fruit consumption.”

It is time governments acted to protect Canadians from the unhealthy marketing practices of the food and beverage industry — we will all benefit.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.