In an attempt to quell rising childhood obesity rates in Canada, a group of food companies said Monday they would use half of their advertising to promote healthy eating and active living among children.

'How could we be facing a population of children who aren't going to be as healthy as their parents?' —Nancy Croitoru, Food & Consumer Products of Canada

The participating companies — which include Hershey, Janes Family Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Ltd. among others — generate about 90 per cent of all ads aimed at children. The healthy living advertisements, to go in print, broadcast and online, will target children under age 12.

"I think industry feels that they have a role," saidNancyCroitoru,the president of Food& Consumer Products of Canada, an industry association that representsthe 15 participating companies.

"The people who run these companies are, for the most part, parents who feel the same need and concern as we all do. How could we be facing a population of children who aren't going to be as healthy as their parents?"

26% of children, adolescents overweight

In March, the House of Commons standing committee on health released a report on childhood obesity that noted that childhood and adolescent overweight and obesity rates have spiked over the past three decades.

In 2004, 18 per cent of children and adolescents were overweight and eight per cent were obese, the report said.

At a news conference held to announce the ad campaign in Toronto on Monday, Health Minister Tony Clement joined the spokespeople from Concerned Children's Advertisers, Food & Consumer Products of Canada, and Advertising Standards Canada.

Clement said the rising rates of overweight and obese children were cause for concern.

"We're reaching a tipping point in this country," he said. "We are understanding that a bad diet without any physical activity can lead to some chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and even certain types of cancer."

The ads will be audited by Advertising Standards Canada, an independent self-regulatory body. In addition, new guidelines for children's food and beverage advertising have been outlined in the industry standards codes.

Cathy Loblaw, the president of Concerned Children's Advertisers, also announced the launch of two new public service announcements and a workshop media literacy series for parents and educators.

Praise from Heart and Stroke Foundation

Sally Brown, the CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, praised the new advertising initiative and encouraged manufacturers to modify their products.

"While there remains much to be done to address the issue of obesity in Canada, industry's efforts around product reformulation combined with this important advertising commitment are positive steps forward that we will continue to monitor and encourage," she said in a release.

Quebec banned direct television advertising to children in 1978, but remains the only province to do so.

With files from the Canadian Press