Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Bill S-228, which is sponsored by Senator Nancy Greene Raine. This bill will put into place a major recommendation from our Senate report on obesity, produced by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and called Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada.
I would like to thank the senator for taking this first step in putting these recommendations into action, and I am happy to second her bill.
I also was pleased to hear the Minister of Health say yesterday that restricting marketing to children was “the right thing to do” during her announcement about other aspects of that same report and dealing with issues facing Health Canada, which is very welcome indeed.
When we started our obesity study, I had not yet come to appreciate the magnitude of the problem in Canada. Each year, 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions that are linked to excess weight. Since 1980, the number of obese adults in Canada has doubled, and for children the number has tripled. That, to me, spells epidemic.
Being obese can put an individual at an increased risk of serious medical ailments, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. The Heart and Stroke Foundation has said that Canadians who are obese at the age of 40 could expect to have six years taken off their life expectancy.
It is not just our health that we should be worried about. As the prevalence of obesity increases, so do the costs associated with it. Obesity costs Canada between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually in health care costs and lost productivity.
It was numbers like these that led to the regulation of the smoking industry back in the 1970s. Countless lives have been spared as a result, and it is time that we do the same with respect to the food industry. This bill will help to do that.
The bill is very specific in its scope: a ban on advertising food and beverages to children under the age of 13. Currently the industry is self-regulated, and they will tell you that they are doing a good job of minimizing the exposure of impressionable young minds to products that can hurt them. One need only look at the statistics to know that this is not true.
First of all, many of the companies involved in the food industry are not part of that protocol to start with.
A 2014 study released in the International Journal of Obesity showed that the amount of advertising has actually increased since the industry adopted voluntary measures in 2007. This is coming from a study by McMaster University. Food advertisers are constantly trying to find new and innovative ways to sell to children. With young Canadians spending more and more time online, specifically on social media sites, they are bombarded with these advertisements. Even the games they play on their phones are sometimes, in one way or another, geared towards convincing them to buy food or drink. Known as “advergames,” they are free to play because they are actually an ad for a specific product.
Earlier in this debate, Senator Lankin asked if this bill would take into account developments, technological or otherwise, in advertising messages being delivered. Senator Greene Raine said that she had received assurances that this bill is medium-neutral and would cover all forms of advertising. This would include advergames as well as other imaginative methods that advertisers use to get their messages to children.
Unfortunately children are particularly susceptible to this kind of target advertising. One study found that children exposed to junk food ads increased the amount of unhealthy food and beverage choices they made as quickly as 30 minutes after seeing an ad, and children today are exposed to an average of five food ads an hour, 90 per cent of which are for an unhealthy food or beverage.
Research has shown that children under the age of 13 do not consistently understand the persuasive intent of the advertisements they see. In 1980, when Quebec passed its ban on advertising to children under the age of 13, they used this as a defence for infringing on the free speech of advertisers. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed.
Detractors of the bill might say that it’s ultimately up to the parents to decide what their child consumes, but it’s not all that simple. With so many Canadian families requiring dual incomes, many parents do not have the time to prepare healthy meals for their families seven days a week. This issue is particularly acute for Canadian families living in poverty. In fact, one in eight Canadian households is food insecure. That’s some 3.9 million Canadians.
Senator Greene Raine said herself that she believes government shouldn’t unnecessarily interfere with our lives; yet she still sees the need for advertising regulations in the food and beverage industry. I’m in total agreement.
It’s time for the federal government to step in to support parents who are trying to make correct nutritional choices for their children. It is important that this bill introduce a ban on all food and drink advertising to children, not just those considered treats or junk food.
Excess sugars can often hide in foods you would not expect. Many popular cereal brands contain upwards of 7.5 teaspoons of added sugar. That’s 1.5 teaspoons more than the daily recommended intake of sugar for children ages 2 to 18.
Our Senate report on obesity recommended that nutrition labels specify how much sugar has been added to a product, anything to make it easier for a parent to be able to make a healthier choice.
That’s why I support this bill. It is clear that the current system of self-regulation in food and beverage advertising is failing. Regulation in this area is one of a number of actions we should take as legislators to aid Canadian parents in providing a healthy diet for their families and to fight obesity.
Many food and beverage companies will not be happy about this, but it is not our job as senators to assist these companies in selling their goods, especially when they can be unhealthy and target children. It is our job to guarantee that they work within a regulatory framework that minimizes the harm that can be done to Canadians, particularly our children.