Health Canada and marketing to kids: what you need to know

The issues at play in the public consultation on appropriate age restrictions, targeting and the definition of "unhealthy food."

Health Canada’s public consultation on limiting food marketing to youth ends today, closing the window for submissions from industry and health groups.

The feds’ proposal seeks to reduce the exposure of kids and teens under age 17 to marketing of unhealthy food and beverages through legislation and regulatory changes to the Food and Drugs Act. Such a move could have major impacts on industries including food, sports, media and advertising.

The consultation document cites a number of methods marketers use to reach children – including shelf placement, celebrity endorsements and youth sports sponsorships – noting the “pervasiveness” of marketing in a digital world and seeking to address the “growing concern” about the impact those ads have on the nutrition of children. It comes as part of the Liberal government’s Healthy Eating Strategy, which also plans to update the Canada Food Guide as a response to rising obesity rates, heart disease and diabetes.

“It has been estimated that in one year Canadian children view over 25 million food and beverage ads on their favourite websites – and over 90% are for unhealthy products,” it states. “Parents and caregivers deserve a supportive environment where children are not constantly targeted by unhealthy food marketing.”

A number of groups on both sides of the debate are registered to lobby on the changes.

The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, a group led by the Heart & Stroke Foundation, has lobbied to restrict all food and beverage marketing to kids under 17. Dozens of health organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Dental Association, the Canadian Nurses Association and the Canadian Cancer Society, have endorsed the recommendation. Earlier this year, Heart & Stroke also released a report on marketing to youth and launched an ad campaign depicting a fake ad agency specializing in marketing junk food to kids.

Industry groups including the Association of Canadian Advertisers, Food and Consumer Products of Canada, the Canadian Beverage Association, the Baking Association of Canada, as well as broadcaster Corus are all registered to lobby the federal government on the issue.

Ron Lund, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers, says the public consultation could have been an agreeable way for the marketing industry’s position on the issue to be heard, as the ACA has previously stated that it and other industry groups have been “shut out” of the development of Bill S-228, a private member’s bill also addressing advertising towards children currently before the senate (representatives from Corus and Ad Standards did appear before the senate committee in June). However, Lund says the industry was similarly left out of the creation of Health Canada’s consultation document, leading to a series of pre-determined solutions.

“It’s ‘do you want to ban this whole list of things from advertising, or this whole list of things from advertising?’” he says. “It’s an exercise to say they’ve went to the public and got their input, but it was input to questions they’ve already answered. This is despite [the Trudeau government] saying they’d always proceed on evidence-based research for policy. This is not evidence based. We were shut out of any input into the document for public consultation.”

Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine, who introduced Bill S-228 in November, says the industry’s position on the issue “is well known,” and the food and beverage industry was represented during earlier hearings on the obesity issue in Canada. She adds that, in addition to the Health Canada consultation, moving the details of her bill to the Food & Drug act would create more opportunities for the industry’s voice to be heard through the lengthy regulatory process.

Health Canada will compile the results of the consultation into a “What We Heard” report to be published in November. A departmental spokesperson said updated regulations would likely be published in the Canada Gazette next year.

The public consultation launched in June. The department sought insight on the definition of “unhealthy food”; how to determine when an ad is directed at kids; the types of marketing that should not be restricted; and where exceptions should be permitted.

In the consultation, Health Canada posed two thresholds for products to be restricted. The first – foods with more than 5% of the recommended daily value of saturated fat, sugar or sodium – would include items such as frosted wheat cereal, fries, granola bars and calorie-reduced cheese. The second – foods with more than 15% – would cover soda, cookies, juice, sweet cereals, cheese and bagels.

The proposed definition of “child-directed” marketing on TV would cover marketing aired from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. On the internet, it was defined as marketing on “websites, platforms and apps that are popular with children, even when these digital channels are intended for adults as well.”

The consultation document said Health Canada would have the authority to “prohibit all marketing techniques in all child-directed settings and channels,” including packaging, sponsorships, product placement and social influencers.

There are currently no federal restrictions on marketing food to kids, though in Quebec, the Consumer Protection Act has banned advertising all goods and services to kids under 13 since 1980.

Some self-regulatory industry standards also exist. Since 2007, Advertising Standards Canada has run the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI), a voluntary program that gives participants the option of choosing to only market “good for you” products to children under the age of 12, or to not target marketing towards children at all. Participating companies include some of the biggest food and beverage companies in the country, including Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Mars and PepsiCo.

The Health Canada consultation comes at time when the issue of marketing to children is also in front of the senate. Bill S-228 originally sought to ban all food ads directed to children under 13. The bill was amended when it went to the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology in June, raising the age threshold to under 17, extending the date the bill comes into force to two years after it is passed and only banning ads that advertised food deemed to be “unhealthy.” While not explicitly stated in the amendments, Senator Raine told strategy the definition of “unhealthy” would be based on Health Canada standards set by the latest science and international models, echoing what she said during committee deliberations.

The ACA has also questioned the raised age limit, pointing to the fact that kids under 17 can do things like hunt with firearms, fly a plane solo or watch television shows featuring adult content, and the fact that it is only one year away from the proposed age limit for purchasing cannabis when legalization comes into effect.

Health Canada points to recent research about teens’ impulsiveness, need for immediate gratification and susceptibility to marketing and peer influence as cause for the age limit for restrictions being set at 16 and under. It also cites international examples, such the U.K.’s restrictions on advertising to children under 16 that came into effect last month, or Ireland, where the age limit ranges from under 18 to under 13, depending on the advertising method being used. Restrictions of some sort exist in Mexico (for children under 13), Chile (under 14) and South Korea (under 18). There is a ban on ads directed to kids under 12 in Norway and Sweden, with the latter also banning forms of direct advertising to children under 16.

With files from Josh Kolm