Eye Candy for kids? Marketing to children policy in focus

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You might say that eliminating junk food marketing to kids is like taking away the eye “candy”… but does that mean they’ll eat healthier foods?

If only it were that easy : grosso motto, that’s only part of the question. The focus of this year’s joint inaugural event hosted by the Ontario Public Health Association and the Nutrition Resource Centre was Marketing Toward Children, with an examination of a variety of different policy approaches to restricting child-directed marketing activities.

There is much enthusiasm and momentum by several national and provincial health organizations to restrict the manipulative nature of commercial marketing to children (on the basis that young children do not yet have the cognitive maturity to understand deceptive advertising).

Pervasive Messaging

Ironically, kids’ access to “junk food” marketing is pervasive in Canada, while health professionals continue to talk about how kids need to eat healthier. There’s really no escaping the media: ads to children in Canada are everywhere. They are targeted through television, the internet, at grocery stores and in schools with advertisements that promote unhealthy eating and sedentary behavior.

At the same time, the Federal Government is spending millions of dollars to encourage Canadians to eat less unhealthy food (high in calories, fat, sugar and salt) and more healthy food (fruits and vegetables).

Policy options

While Canada does have some laws and initiatives which address marketing to children, they are voluntary and predominantly regulated by the food industry with little monitoring or oversight. There are no federal regulations that specifically address and curb marketing to children.

Clearly something needs to be done: what is less clear is which approach is best?

The debate is currently centered on three policy options:

  1. restricting the marketing of all products to children as practiced in Quebec, Sweden and Norway;
  2. restricting the marketing of all food products to children; or
  3. restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children.

For a Hypertension Advisory Committee, representing 9 leading national health organizations and chaired by Dr. Norm Campbell, professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary and the current Canadian Research Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control, the best policy approach is #3 and has led this group to develop a health and scientific organization policy consensus statement to restrict unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children. While not yet formally launched, the statement outlines a set of recommendations for all Canadian governments, non-governmental organizations and the food industry to restrict unhealthy food and beverage marketing practices. The recommendations are an attempt to put into action the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children.

National endorsers to date include: the Canadian Medical Association, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Stroke Network, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Canadian Council of Cardiovascular Nurses, Hypertension Canada, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, the Public Health Physicians of Canada, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Alberta Public Health Association, the Canadian Dental Association, the Canadian Association of Pediatric Nephrologists, the Canadian Society of Internal Medicine and the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention.

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