Canadian kids and teens are bombarded by advertising for food and beverages in movies, video games, apps and social media — and that needs to stop, the Heart and Stroke Foundation says in a new report.

Over 90 per cent of food and beverage ads viewed by kids and teens online are for unhealthy products, much of them high in salt, fat or sugar, according to the group's 2017 Report on the Health of Canadians, released Wednesday.

Kids see 25 million of those ads a year on their top 10 favourite websites, research commissioned by the group suggests.

Compounding the problem is "advergaming" — overt and covert ads that children are exposed to as they play video games — which is more extensive than traditional TV spots.

Given how the marketing influences kids' preferences and choices, their family relationships and their health, the group calls for strong restrictions on the commercial marketing of food and drinks to children and youth.

In September 2016, Senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced an act to prohibit such marketing to children under the age of 13. The Heart and Stroke Foundation would like the legislation passed without delay.

Pester power

Food industry marketing sets up conflicts in families, said Kelowna, B.C., pediatrician Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation. 

"Eventually, the kids wear down the parents," Warshawski said in an interview. "It's called pester power. Industry is aware of this, and they exploit that and basically create divisions in the family for their own profit."

Warshawski said he sees the resulting conflicts play out in his office all the time. 

"When I'm counselling parents and children and youth around weight issues, recommending to the family that they not bring junk food into the house … I've had numerous occasions where children will break down in tears or they'll stomp out of the office and say they won't do this. It does set up conflicts." 

Warshawski joined the Heart and Stroke Foundation in calling for legislation to protect kids and support parents as they teach children healthy habits.

Ads' disruptive effect on families

Quebec offers a role model. The group said a 2011 study suggests the province's 1980 ban on commercial advertising to children under 13 was associated with a 13-per-cent reduction in the likelihood of buying fast food, compared with Ontario.

Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children aged six to 11 and the highest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption, it said.

But across the country, processed and ultra-processed foods now make up 60 per cent of the average family's food purchases, up from 30 per cent.

Monique Potvin Kent and food products marketed to children

Monique Potvin Kent, commissioned to do the study, found more than 90 per cent of products viewed by both kids and teens online are for products considered unhealthy because of high concentrations of sugar, fat or sodium. (Heart and Stroke Foundation)

Given that adolescents are now the major target of marketing, Warshawski said, the group recommends a ban on marketing to kids under the age of 16, as the U.K. has done.

Warshawski's main advice to parents is to recognize the degree of threat posed by junk food and drinks — and then be assertive about cutting it out of the family's diet. 

"Based on the habits you learn in childhood and youth, if you're obese by age 40, on average, you will lose six years of life. That's the same impact that smoking a pack of cigarettes a day has. So this is a problem that is serious and needs to be addressed right now."

To help protect children, the group's suggestions also include:

  • Limit their children's screen time.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with a variety of natural and minimally processed foods.
  • Consume fewer processed and pre-packaged foods and sugary drinks.
  • Prepare meals at home as much as possible.
  • Involve children and youth in planning and preparing meals.

Brenda Kent, mother of daughter Nova, 9, and son Quinn, 11, agreed it can be a challenge for parents to resist pester power.

"At the end of the day, if you're going grocery shopping, you just want to get it done, and if the kids are asking for things over and over again it definitely can be a constant source of conflict with your kids," Kent said from her home on Vancouver Island.

The group also offers suggestions to provincial and municipal governments, schools and school boards, and communities, such as limiting sole-sourced contracts with food and beverage companies. 

Advertising Standards Canada has a voluntary program on food and beverage advertising to children under the age of 12. 

"We are not in a position to provide any comments until we have done a thorough analysis, a spokeswoman for the group said when asked for a response to the Heart and Stroke Foundation's findings. 

The Canadian Beverage Association said its members' guidelines on marketing to children prevent advertising of beverages other than water, 100 per cent fruit or vegetable juice, and milk to children under the age of 12.

The report is titled "The kids are not alright. How the food and beverage industry is marketing our children and youth to death."

Quit selling our kids junk food: Heart and Stroke Foundation2:01

With files from The Canadian Press