By Chantal Petitclerc and Tom Warshawski
If there is one big lesson we should learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the value in keeping people as healthy as possible. Not just as individuals but also to help everyone, collectively.
A healthier population is not only more productive and needs fewer healthcare services but it helps society enormously in health crises like a pandemic. People with chronic illnesses are at much greater risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19
This is yet another reason why the federal government must act without further delay to achieve one of its key objectives since taking office almost six years ago: the restricting of food marketing aimed at children, almost all of which is for foods that are ultraprocessed and of low nutritional value.
Advertising-driven overconsumption, particularly when it starts at a young age, can lead to poor eating habits, and we know that poor eating habits have contributed to a large degree to increases in heart disease and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and obesity. These conditions shorten lives and put a burden on our population and our health system.
The irony is that we should have had those marketing restrictions in place well before COVID-19 struck.
To start with, Quebec has had provincial legislation restricting most advertising to children in effect since 1980, and it has led to a reduced likelihood to consume fast food by children there. The implementation of a similar measure at the national level was a key promise for the current federal government in its 2015 election platform, in the 2019 federal budget, and in several health minister mandate letters.
Unfortunately, legislation that was approved by the House of Commons to address this issue was stalled in the Senate and in effect killed by a few senators in June 2019, despite the fact that the majority of senators supported the legislation.
Now, two years and a pandemic after that legislative debacle, Canadian children remain unprotected from the onslaught of marketing of unhealthy, heavily processed foods. The marketing is not only on television but includes a universe of Internet and social-media devices—videos, games, cartoons, contests, special offers, and more—to bombard children with the attractiveness of their products, more than 90 percent of which are unhealthy, according to one study from the University of Ottawa.
Another study found that Canadian children aged 9 to 13 get an average of 57 percent of their caloric intake from ultraprocessed food of low nutritional value, while research also shows that seven out of 10 children aged four to eight eat fewer than the recommended five servings of vegetables and fruit each day. The heavy marketing of processed foods is one of the factors encouraging these disturbing trends.
Even in Quebec, where such marketing to kids is restricted, there are still gaps in policy. In 2019, the Quebec health group Coalition Poids identified 469 food product packages targeting children in retail outlets. Among these, nine out of every 10 were highly processed foods rich in sugar, salt, or saturated fat. So it's no surprise that, according to an Ipsos survey, 84 percent of Quebec parents believe packaging practices should be further restricted.
In May this year, the United Kingdom announced that by April next year, advertisements featuring foods of low nutritional value that appear online or on television will be banned before 9 p.m. The regulation is part of a new obesity-prevention plan that includes other measures to limit the promotion of these foods to children.
The U.K. is one on a long list of countries seeking to curb the explosion of chronic diseases associated with, among other things, excessive consumption of ultraprocessed foods. By the U.K. government's own admission, the current pandemic has been a wake-up call to the importance of creating healthy eating environments for all, even though we have known for decades that poor nutrition increases the risk of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.
Canada should now move as quickly as possible in helping our children get a far better start in eating well—for life.