Food and Health | Legal

Childhood obesity and advertising that targets children: A battle on two fronts

By : Maryse Guénette
Photo Credit: McKaela Taylor (Unsplash)

As a way of tackling childhood obesity, one study suggests that the Canadian government look to sections of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act that ban advertising to children. The initiative certainly merits consideration.   

Childhood obesity rates are rising around the world, and Canada is no exception. The rate is estimated to have nearly tripled over the past 30 years.

To improve the situation, Junk Food Advertising in Canada: How Should It Be Regulated?, a study published by the Union des consommateurs, recommends that the federal government pass a law that would be in line with the provisions of sections 248 and 249 of Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act. The two sections not only ban the advertising of junk food, but also impose a total ban on advertising to children.

“Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in the country among children aged 6 to 11,” notes Élisabeth Gibeau, a health analyst with the Union and author of the study. Although it may be difficult to draw a direct line between the two, “researchers see a corresponding link with the ban on child-directed advertising in Quebec.”


Why the ban?

It may seem surprising to ban advertising aimed at children, since parents are the ones who do the food shopping. The decision was based on the fact that “children’s point of view has an impact on purchases made by the family,” says Gibeau. According to the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (the Weight Coalition), minor children influence 40% of food purchases.

Businesses also see children as consumers. The author quotes Roy Bergold, head of advertising at McDonald’s from 1969 to 2001, who suggested focusing marketing campaigns on children to make them loyal customers. “If you can attract a child aged 4, 5 or 6 to McDonald’s, he will probably continue to come once he is a teenager, then an adult, and will then come with his own children,” he said.

Research also indicates a demonstrable cause and effect between the promotional activities of the food industry and young people’s knowledge, behaviours and food preferences. No surprises there, says Gibeau.

Recent developments in neuroscience… show that [until a certain age], children’s brain development prevents them from making well-considered decisions when watching advertising, and that they are especially vulnerable to the desires and needs created by advertising.”

Élisabeth Gibeau, health analyst at Union des consommateurs and author of the study

Consumer rights for all

The Union des consommateurs study was based on the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, specifically the right to information, free choice and safety. Gibeau believes that these principles must be respected in Canada in order to provide proper protection for young consumers. This is not currently the case – a situation that has been condemned by Consumers International and the World Health Organization.

When it comes to the right to information, the study indicates that “through various strategies, the food industry tries to conceal the nutritional information on its junk food products to prevent consumers, including children, from seeing their true health effects.”

Looking at the right to free choice, the study notes that “Without all the relevant information on a food product (…), consumers are unable to make a free and informed choice.”

Finally, when we consider the right to safety, the study points out that “Children’s safety is threatened by the current global obesity epidemic.”


In Canada…

In the study, Gibeau examines Canadian guidelines for various forms of advertising. Apart from the general provisions in different pieces of legislation, this is mainly a matter of voluntary codes regulated by the industry itself, which she feels are far from sufficient.

Companies invest a lot of money in think tanks and research organizations that promote voluntary codes,” she says. “They spend a great deal on ad campaigns that show the importance of making good individual choices. They use devious strategies to prevent any attempt at monitoring.”

Élisabeth Gibeau

Ottawa does intend to change things – or at least, it did at one point. At the time of the study, Bill S-228, inspired by the Quebec law, was on the table. “The bill, which proposed a ban on the advertising of ‘unhealthy food’ aimed at children under the age of 13, vanished from the radar in 2019, just before the last federal election,” says Gibeau. “We haven’t heard a word on the subject since then.”


… and elsewhere in the world

Gibeau also looked at what was happening around the world, focusing on a study by the World Health Organization and examining the situation in four countries. The rules often apply only to TV commercials, which is disappointing. “The only countries with legislation similar to the Quebec act are the Nordic countries,” the researcher points out.

Many countries also ban the advertising of junk food rather than advertising intended for children, and in fact that is what Ottawa was preparing to do. Gibeau feels it would be preferable to ban advertising that targets children. “The provisions would be easier to apply in that case,” she says, “because it would then be possible to prohibit the advertising of food without first having to measure the sugar or salt content. And we would have a law on other products, such as toys, that can also cause problems.”


Pluses and minuses of the Quebec legislation

The Quebec legislation may be a model, but it’s not perfect. It only provides protection for children under the age of 13 – which means that the industry now targets older children – and it only applies to advertising on product packaging or on in-store displays.

It does have considerable advantages, however, the main one being that it has stood the test of time. “When it was passed in 1978, toy manufacturers and broadcasters claimed that it would affect their sales, even drive them into bankruptcy,” says Gibeau. “It has not harmed the toy industry, and children’s programs have somehow found a way to survive…”

Another major plus: the legislation has been tested in the court of law. In the 1980s, when sections 248 and 249 of the Quebec act were contested, the case went up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which concluded in a majority decision that the sections were well-founded. As stated in the judgment, “The legislature reasonably concluded that advertisers should not be able to capitalize upon children’s credulity” by either urging them to buy products or asking their parents to buy them. That certainly still holds true today.

The Study

Junk Food Advertising in Canada: How Should It Be Regulated? Union des consommateurs, June 2019), looked at childhood obesity as a consequence of consuming junk food, asking how best to counter this phenomenon. After considering the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection – the right to information, free choice and safety – and establishing that the guidelines were not being followed, the study analyzed the regulations in force in Canada and other countries to determine which were the most effective. The study settled on the provisions of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, which bans all forms of advertising intended for children under the age of 13, and recommended that federal lawmakers base their deliberations on the Quebec legislation.