I was as happy as anyone with the release of the revised Canada’s Food Guide earlier this year. There was not much to complain about and, in fact, much to praise. This is as true for what was in the guide – sensible guidance around cooking more and consuming less processed food, as it was for what was left out – dairy as a category, chocolate milk as a healthy beverage, and juice being a fruit or vegetable equivalent.
The new guide warns Canadians to be aware of food marketing and Health Canada was firm that industry would not have a seat at the table when the food guide was being developed.
Unfortunately, industry is having influence in other areas of the federal Healthy Eating Strategy. Powerful industry lobbyists are doing what powerful industry lobbyists do best: lobbying for their interests. They seem to have the ear of our Senate, as they have been successful in stalling the final vote for Bill S-228, which would restrict food and beverage marketing to kids 12 and under. More than a year ago, I wrote a piece busting some of the myths circulating about the bill. To keep up with the industry spin, here’s the sequel.
Claim: Foods that are healthy will be labelled “unhealthy” as part of Bill S-228.
Reality: The front-of-pack labelling initiative is a completely separate regulation from the marketing to kids legislation. Foods will not be labelled as part of S-228. First, they will be assessed to confirm if they are being marketed to kids. If the answer is yes, they will be assessed against thresholds for three nutrients of concern: salt, sugar and saturated fat. If they exceed any of these thresholds, the marketing of those products to children will be restricted. None of the products will be labelled as “unhealthy” or as anything else. In fact, Health Canada is considering not using the word “unhealthy” at all in the regulations themselves.
Claim: Enforcement of Bill S-228 would require an invasion of privacy and an infringement of freedoms.
Reality: Otherwise known as the “nanny state” argument, industry groups have expressed fear that “limiting ads to children would require websites and apps to track minors in a way that could violate data protections under Canadian privacy law” and that advertisers’ freedom of expression would be restricted.The bill would do nothing of the sort. It will protect children in the same way that there is a minimum age requirement for driving or voting and for purchasing certain products such as alcohol. And it would not stop industry from advertising its products to adults following the same rules it must follow already. It also does not do the job of parents; it just helps parents do the job they want to do in the first place – help their kids develop healthy habits. Which is difficult to do when you are up against a multi-million-dollar industry and you recognize that spending all of your waking moments scrutinizing your children’s each and every click is neither feasible, nor a healthy way to build trust and responsibility with your kids.
Claim: S-228 needs further study.
Reality: I am a big fan of evidence-based policy. And there is ample evidence to support that: a) marketing works; b) the foods and beverages being marketed to kids are high in salt, sugar and saturated fat; and c) that legislation targeting those same foods will help to protect our children. The reality is that this bill has been reviewed extensively in both the Senate and the House of Commons. The bill started in the Senate in 2016, was studied extensively in committee, received unanimous consent from senators and went through the House of Commons where it received majority vote with two minor amendments. It is now back in the Senate, almost three years later, for final vote and approval. The call for further study is surely nothing more than a tactic to stall the final vote until the Senate recesses for the summer and it effectively dies.
Claim: Grain farmers and the bread industry in general will be specifically and negatively impacted by advertising restrictions in Bill S-228.
Reality: Someone has been fomenting fear within the grain sector. Speaking about Bill S-228 at the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry in May, Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, said, “I just learned yesterday that all bread is going to be on the list of products that are unhealthy.” The red herrings here are numerous. Plainly, there will be no list of unhealthy products, and of all breads in Canada, fewer than on per cent (two bread products out of 533 possible breads) are marketed to children. Clearly this argument is not worth its salt.
Claim: Bill S-228 will negatively impact children’s sports. Children’s community sports programs rely on industry sponsorships.
Reality: This myth continues to circulate – including in the Senate itself – so I will continue to set the record straight. It has been repeatedly clarified by the minister of Health, Health Canada and others that children’s community sports sponsorships are being exempted from Bill S-228. And in an email to stakeholders in December, Sports Matters specified: “Health Canada is proposing to exempt children’s sport sponsorship to address concerns that there could be a negative impact on access to community sports if sponsorship was prohibited.”
There are several other nutritional hills still worth fighting for: getting fast food out of our schools; implementing a national food program; enacting a soda tax; and ending front-of-package health claims. But today, let’s fight the fight that is in front of us. Bill S-228 has been studied, it has been through all of the proper channels and it is just waiting for a final vote. Let’s demand the Senate do its job by calling a vote and getting it passed.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, the medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute and an outspoken public health advocate.