Heart & Stroke Canada released a report today damning the food and beverage industry’s practice of squarely targeting children with unhealthy products. It makes clear that, by not limiting marketing and advertising products high in sugar, fat and salt, we are choosing as a society to sell our children sickness.

They say, the effects are clear:

  • Unhealthy diets were responsible for about 50,000 deaths in Canada in 2015.
  • Processed food purchases have doubled in 70 years to 60% of family food purchases.
  • One-quarter of children ages 5 –19 say they consume sugary drinks every day. One can of pop provides close to the recommended daily maximum for sugar intake.
  • Childhood obesity levels in Canada have tripled since 1979.
  • Less than half of youth ages 12 – 19 eat at least five servings (minimum recommended) of fruit and vegetables daily.
  • As much as 90% of food and beverages marketed on TV are high in salt, fat or sugar.
  • The average child watches about two hours of TV a day and sees four – five food and beverage ads per hour.
  • Canadian children and youth spend almost eight hours a day in front of screens.

Since 1979, the number of Canadian children with obesity has tripled, with almost one in three children overweight or obese. They say, obesity rates are influenced by the amount of marketing kids are exposed to, and it puts children and adolescents at risk for many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. This is not surprising given the majority of the products marketed to kids are for unhealthy products.

According to the report, 72% of Canadians believe the food and beverage industry markets its products directly to children and 78% believe these products are unhealthy. “We have seen a transition in the last few decades,” says Dr. Norm Campbell, Heart & Stroke CIHR Chair in Hypertension. “For the first time we have kids who have spent their whole lives eating unhealthy diets high in processed foods.”

TV is still a dominant medium for advertising to children, but as children spend more time online digital marketing is growing. The report includes a snapshot of what’s hitting our children’s eyes most when they look at their top 10 favourite websites over the course of one year.

Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, an expert on food and beverage marketing and children’s nutrition in Canada, then assessed both the volume of ads and the nutritional quality of the products they were seeing.

“I could not get over the numbers, there are many ads on TV directed at kids and it’s even higher for teens, but there are only so many spots available, there is a limit. On the Internet there are absolutely no limits. The level of food and beverage marketing online is very high and almost all products advertised are unhealthy,” says Dr. Potvin Kent.

Her research revealed:

  • In one year collectively children (ages 2–11) viewed over 25 million food and beverage ads on their favourite websites.
  • Over 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by children and teens online are for unhealthy products – processed foods and beverages high in fat, sodium, or sugar.
  • The most frequently advertised products on children’s favourite websites are Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, McDonald’s Happy Meal, Red Bull Energy Drink, and Kraft Lunchables.
  • The most frequently advertised food and beverage products on teens’ favourite websites are Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Red Bull Energy Drink, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win.
  • The most frequently advertised product categories on children’s favourite websites are restaurants, cakes, cookies, ice cream and cereal.
  • The most frequently advertised food and beverage product categories on teens’ favourite websites are cakes, cookies and ice cream, cereal, restaurants and sugar sweetened beverages.

Given this, one would imagine regulation would intervene. But, the report says it has not. 

They say, for the past 10 years the food and beverage industry has set its own standards and self-regulated its marketing through the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI). The program is not mandatory and the nutrient criteria is weak.

More troubling, advertising to kids has actually increased over the past decade. “Look at the CAI’s latest report and some of the foods they say are ‘healthier dietary choices’ and are therefore advertised to kids: Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Eggo Waffles. At which breakfast tables are these considered healthy choices?” asks Geoff Craig, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Heart & Stroke.

The report claims “grave weaknesses” exist across the CAI approach and its criteria. These are inadequate to address the growing challenge, given the high volume of unhealthy food and beverage marketing seen by children and youth. In the report, Dr. Potvin Kenther shows that companies participating in the CAI are the worst offenders: three-quarters of the unhealthy ads viewed by children and youth were from companies that participate in the CAI.

Legislation means a fair fight for everyone

“I get irritated when I am told these types of restrictions are about the government trying to control parents. This is the type of policy that supports parents. Parents are doing the best job they can but our environment makes it hard; every environment we go into is filled with products high in sugar and fat,” says Dr. Potvin Kent.

This legislation is about protecting Canadian kids from harm, just as we’ve done with car seat laws and restrictions on smoking.

In fact, Canada is the best global example of this as restrictions on marketing to kids has been implemented to great effect in the past. Quebec, a Canadian province, is a prime example. They implemented legislation banning marketing and advertising to kids 30 years ago. Over that time, fast food consumption has seen a marked decline – amounting to a 13% reduction in the likelihood to purchase fast food. It’s no coincidence that Quebec also has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children ages 6 – 11 years old, and the highest rate of vegetable and fruit consumption.

Legislation helps people. But it helps business too.

Without legislation, companies have to make a decision between staying the course with the products they know sell, but cause harm. Or taking on the cost of reformulation or changing their products all together. This of course comes at a cost – one most companies are unlikely to take on, unless it’s demanded – by what consumers choose to buy, or what governments say is allowed.

That’s why regulation matters – to ensure an even playing field for business, and for kids health.

You can read the full report here heartandstroke.ca/heartreport

And join Canadians and Heart & Stroke Canada (@TheHSF) in saying it’s time to stop unhealthy #Marketing2Kids on Twitter.