Cana­dian kids are bom­barded with junk-food ads. It’s time for health­ier mes­sages

Times Colonist - - Front Page - MONIQUE KEIRAN

‘The great­est op­por­tu­nity for shap­ing the fu­ture health of peo­ple in B.C. is through pos­i­tively in­flu­enc­ing the health and well-be­ing of chil­dren. … Schools are an ideal set­ting be­cause they can reach al­most ev­ery child in B.C., and by ex­ten­sion, their fam­i­lies.”

B.C. au­di­tor gen­eral Carol Bell­ringer made this state­ment in a re­port her of­fice re­leased last May. Pro­mot­ing Healthy Eat­ing and Phys­i­cal Ac­tiv­ity in K-12: An In­de­pen­dent Au­dit ex­am­ines B.C. Health’s and B.C. Ed­u­ca­tion’s over­sight of seven healthy eat­ing and phys­i­cal-ac­tiv­ity ini­tia­tives in the prov­ince’s schools. The ini­tia­tives in­clude pro­grams and poli­cies such as Healthy Schools B.C., the B.C. School Fruit and Veg­etable Nu­tri­tional Pro­gram, and Com­mu­ni­tyLINK fund­ing for meal pro­grams. Such pro­grams have lon­glast­ing pub­lic-health out­comes. Healthy eat­ing and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity lower our risk of de­vel­op­ing di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, can­cer and other chronic dis­eases.

Bell­ringer’s state­ment is apt, be­cause it rec­og­nizes kids’ enor­mous in­flu­ence on their fam­i­lies’ food and health choices.

Zoom out from schools, and we find in­dus­try and pub­lic-health agen­cies across the coun­try wrestling over ac­cess to kids’ pester power.

You’ve seen the ads. Kel­logg’s Pop Tarts, Red Bull, Frosted Flakes, Happy Meals, Bear Paws and oth­ers tar­get chil­dren. Crit­ter char­ac­ters, car­toons, bright colours, and kid-friendly mu­sic and mes­sag­ing are used to ap­peal to and ma­nip­u­late kids into want­ing prod­ucts, then pes­ter­ing mom and dad to buy them.

Kids are Big Money for candy and snack­food man­u­fac­tur­ers and mar­keters.

Univer­sity of Ottawa re­searchers found Cana­dian kids age two to 11 viewed more than 54 mil­lion food and drink ban­ner and pop-up ads and 14.4 mil­lion dis­play ads on their 10 favourite web­sites from June 2015 to May 2016. More than 90 per cent of the ads were for high-sugar, high-fat and high­salt prod­ucts, ac­cord­ing to Pan Amer­i­can Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion def­i­ni­tions. That’s more than 168,000 junk-food ads ev­ery day — just on the in­ter­net.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Cana­dian Ad­ver­tis­ers es­ti­mates Cana­di­ans see about 159.5 bil­lion food ads each year on tele­vi­sion. Half could be said to tar­get kids.

The hu­man brain does not de­velop the abil­ity to think crit­i­cally or ab­stractly — skills nec­es­sary for as­sess­ing the value and pur­pose of mar­ket­ing mes­sages — un­til ado­les­cence. Re­search shows kids younger than four to five are un­able to dis­tin­guish ad­ver­tis­ing from non-com­mer­cial in­for­ma­tion, and kids younger than seven to eight are not yet able to rec­og­nize that ads are de­signed to per­suade. Other stud­ies show chil­dren as young as two years old can de­velop brand loy­alty.

Faced with out­raged par­ents and health prac­ti­tion­ers de­mand­ing bans on junk-food ad­ver­tis­ing to kids, Canada’s ad in­dus­try agreed in 2007 to reg­u­late it­self. But with the re­sult­ing “Bet­ter for You” cam­paign in­clud­ing prod­ucts such as Marsh­mal­low Peb­bles and Kool-Aid Jam­mers, the in­dus­try now faces its big­gest chal­lenge.

The Child Health Pro­tec­tion Act, or Bill S-288, un­der­went sec­ond read­ing in the House of Com­mons early this year. If passed, it would re­strict mar­ket­ing of un­healthy foods and bev­er­ages to kids.

Dur­ing pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions, Health Canada pro­posed re­strict­ing ad­ver­tis­ing of, for ex­am­ple, reg­u­lar soda, ice cream, can­dies and sugar-sweet­ened ce­re­als. An ad­di­tional op­tion would re­strict ads for foods such as gra­nola bars, potato chips, French fries and ar­ti­fi­cially sweet­ened bev­er­ages.

The agency also pro­posed ban­ning ads on TV on week­day morn­ings and evenings and much of the week­end, and curb­ing ads in schools, gro­cery stores and other places where “sig­nif­i­cant numbers of chil­dren are likely to be ex­posed to mar­ket­ing” — in­clud­ing dig­i­tal me­dia.

Of al­most 1,150 sub­mis­sions made by con­sumers, health pro­fes­sion­als, and food­in­dus­try, ad­ver­tis­ing-sec­tor and other or­ga­ni­za­tions, most sup­ported the pro­pos­als, with some amend­ments. Th­ese in­cluded defin­ing “un­healthy,” com­ing up with an ef­fec­tive mon­i­tor­ing frame­work and defin­ing the age of chil­dren to be pro­tected.

In its own 28-page sub­mis­sion, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Cana­dian Ad­ver­tis­ers protested. It said the pro­pos­als are “over­broad,” “should be re­con­sid­ered from the ground up,” and would se­verely limit its clients’ abil­ity to reach con­sumers. No sur­prises — the mem­ber-run as­so­ci­a­tion ex­ists to pro­tect its mem­bers’ in­ter­ests.

But if the ad in­dus­try’s “Bet­ter for You” cam­paign in­cludes Fudgsi­cles and Froot Loops, think how not be­ing bom­barded 168,000 times a day by ads for prod­ucts con­tain­ing more yummy sugar, more de­li­cious fat and more scrump­tious salt will be even bet­ter for all our kids. Now and in the fu­ture. At home and at school.

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