Health Canada is considering a widespread ban on the marketing of unhealthy food to kids under the age of 17. It could cover everything from TV, online and print advertising to product labelling, in-store displays and even end some sponsorships for sports teams.
The federal government announced the first step in St. John's this morning by launching public consultations on how foods are marketed to kids in Canada.
"Most of the foods that are marketed to kids are these ones that are high in fat, high in sugar, high in sodium, so that's what we're looking at," said Hasan Hutchinson, director general at Health Canada, who is overseeing the consultations.
"That would then cut out all of the things like, of course, your regular soda, most cookies, cakes, pies, puddings, ice cream, most cheeses because they are high in fat, they're high in salt," he said.
Health Canada would also target foods such as sugar-sweetened yogurt, frozen waffles, fruit juice, granola bars and potato chips.
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The federal government looked at the Quebec ban on advertising to children, which has been in place since 1980.
In that province, companies can't market unhealthy food to children under 13 years old. But Health Canada wants to go further, banning marketing to any person under 17.
"We know of course that children under 13 are particularly impressionable. But we feel that evidence is showing that teens [in the] 13- to 17-year-old age group are equally a vulnerable group," Hutchinson said.
He points to the fact that many young teens have their own income for the first time, and are not as closely supervised by their parents.
Targeting high caffeine drinks
It is an argument Senator Nancy Greene Raine supports.
The Conservative senator introduced a private member's bill last November that would have banned junk food advertising to children under 13.
But in her first appearance before the Senate committee studying her bill earlier this month, Greene Raine told senators she will be amending her bill to raise the age once it goes for clause-by-clause consideration.
'Red Bull. Rockstar. These highly caffeinated soft drinks are working on the adolescents…but targetting them is really unhealthy,' - Nancy Green Raine, Senator
"Some products that are being marketed to teenagers are, in my mind, very harmful. Red Bull. Rockstar. These highly caffeinated soft drinks are working on the adolescents — they like those products. But targeting them is really unhealthy," Greene Raine said.
And she worries bad food choices made as teenagers lead to bad food choices in adulthood.
"A predilection to choosing foods high in sugar, salt, and fat as teenagers, can result in poor food choices for the rest of their lives," said Greene Raine. "It's recognized as one of the precursors to becoming overweight and obese, leading to all kinds of other chronic diseases."
As part of the consultations, Health Canada is asking the public if the advertising ban should extend to sponsorships of sports teams.
Hutchinson said this is one area he thinks there could be some pushback from parents, who may believe sponsorships are critical for small sports teams to operate.
"They're advertising because it has an effect. There's a reason why they're putting money into those sorts of programs," Hutchinson said.
Greene Raine said she understands the link between sponsorships and sports — the senator won gold and silver medals for skiing at the 1968 Olympics, later becoming a spokesperson for Mars bars.
Still, Raine believes there should be some kind of limit on sponsorship of sports teams by companies that sell junk food.
"When you see things like: 'wear your team jersey and come to our fast food outlet and we'll give you a free slushie,' that crosses the line," Raine said.
Revising the Canada Food Guide
Health Canada is also launching a second round of consultations on the revised Canada Food Guide.
There were nearly 20,000 submissions in the first round of consultations in the fall of 2016, including 14,000 from the public.
The guide lists the foods Canadians should use as the foundation of a good diet, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
But for the first time, Health Canada is also listing the foods that should be avoided outright.
"What we've done is a special case on avoidance of processed or prepared beverages that are high in sugars, because based on our evidence reviews, we think we've got enough evidence to be as strong as that. We've never said anything quite that strong," said Hutchinson.
On the naughty list: soft drinks, fruit-flavoured drinks including water, energy drinks and flavoured milks.