junk food

Should Canada follow the UK by banning junk food ads?

The United Kingdom is banning TV and internet adverts that promote unhealthy and junk food between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Now, the debate has begun as to whether Canada should do the same.

Numerous nutritionists and food policy experts insist that any ban or tax on unhealthy food would likely have no great impact on Canadians’ eating habits as a whole, but would be a step in the right direction for public health.

In a statement, Health Canada said it is examining the UK’s new rules and reviewing its own approach to the issue. A 2017 report from Health Canada found overall support to potential changes on food marketing to children, but also noted pushback from the industry and stakeholders.

Nearly a third of Canadian children are overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.

Obesity expert and University of Ottawa associate professor Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told Global News that implementing an ad ban on junk food is “absolutely an obvious choice”. However, he noted that Canada should use such a measure as just one of a raft of initiatives aimed at lowering Canada’s obesity rate.

“Reducing the exposure to those ads is certainly not going to hurt and likely is one of the sandbags that will be required if we want to see our food environment change,” said Freedhoff. “For instance, having a national school food program that serves healthy nutritious foods to all of the kids in the public school system. We’re the only of the G7 countries that don’t have [that].”

Obesity Canada reports that adult obesity rates have increased at least threefold in the last 30 years. That prevalence, as well as the unintended costs of obesity rates, are also projected to increase over the next several years.

However, spokesperson Brad Hussey said that there was not enough evidence to suggest obesity rates would be impacted by any junk food taxes or bans.

“Prevention and treatment approaches must address all of the drivers of obesity if they are to be successful,” he told Global. “In other words, junk food/fast food taxes, bans, and advertising limits are health promotion strategies — the framing of these interventions as obesity prevention strategies is not helpful in the obesity context.”

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Restricting the advertising of junk food, especially to children, has been considered in Canada before. 2016’s proposed Bill S-228 would have limited companies’ ability to advertise unhealthy food to all children under 13 years of age in Canada, citing evidence that such advertising could and often did contribute to excess consumption of sodium, saturated fat and sugars, later increasing the risk of chronic diseases. The bill died in the Senate in 2019.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-food Analytics Lab, insisted that any move to limit or tax certain food products should be done carefully “because it’s a matter of choice”.

“What’s important, I think, is that people are well-informed about what they’re actually buying,” he said. “Transparency is a big, big thing.”

Charlebois advocated for changes to be made at the production stage, noting that in the UK, companies are encouraged to limit the amount of sugar they use in their products rather than being taxed directly for making them unhealthy.

“You have to really take measures that will actually be effective and will actually help governments reach their goal,” he said. “And their goal is to make people healthier and entice people to make better choices.”