Canadian children under 13 shouldn't be exposed to marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, a coalition of medical groups says.

Thursday's policy statement from the Canadian Medical Association, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Hypertension Canada, College of Family Physicians of Canada and others calls on food companies to immediately stop marketing foods high in fats, added sugars or sodium to children.

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The proposed advertising restriction includes characters or mascots promoting sugary cereals. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Federal, provincial and territorial governments have said that protecting the health of children is a priority, said Dr. Norm Campbell, a hypertension specialist at the University of Calgary who led the campaign.

"They had this on their radar and yet absolutely nothing is done, and so this is really a call for action that they do what we already know is going to be effective."

The groups say that in 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that "advertisers should not be able to capitalize upon children's credulity" and "advertising directed at young children is per se manipulative."

Food companies in Canada, with the exception of Quebec, are not required by law to restrict unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children.

Dr. Marie-Dominique Beaulieu is the president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada and practices in Montreal, where she says companies have clear rules on what is considered healthy.

"Up to 80 per cent of food advertising actually advertises unhealthy food and we know that it has a direct impact on the choices that children make," Beaulieu said.

Canada hasn't acted

In May 2010, the World Health Organization released recommendations on the marketing of food and beverages to children and called on governments worldwide to reduce the exposure of children to advertising and to reduce the use of powerful marketing techniques employed by the manufacturers of foods and beverages high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free added sugars or sodium.

Canada has not acted on the recommendations, the health groups said.

The group's statement describes the policy goal this way: "Federal government to immediately begin a legislative process to restrict all marketing targeted to children under the age of 13 of foods and beverages high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or sodium and that in the interim the food industry immediately ceases marketing of such food to children."

They plan to use WHO's recommendations on high content of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or sodium.

"Right now, we have a voluntary ban on marketing of unhealthy foods to children from the food industry," said Campbell. "The industries that have signed on to that are the worst offenders. What they've done is made their own definition."

If enacted, the restrictions would apply to TV, internet, radio, magazines, mobile phones, video and adver-games, brand mascots, product placement, cross-promotions, school or event sponsorships and viral marketing.

Arlene Star of Toronto is careful about exposing her four-year-old daughter Jenna to TV ads but she still knows all the branded characters.  

 "It is up to the parents, but let's try to make it easier for the parents so it doesn't necessarily have to be a daily struggle," Star said.

On Wednesday night, NDP member of Parliament Libby Davies's bill to phase in lower sodium levels in prepackaged foods and add simple, standardized labels, failed to pass with a vote of 147 to 122, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest said.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy and Kim Brunhuber