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Sylvain CharleboisMost people would agree that protecting children should be our country’s utmost priority. Protecting children from unhealthy food products and fast-food chains has been the subject of many conversations.

Ads for sugary food products geared towards children have been contested for years and some countries have opted to ban them, one way or another. The United Kingdom, the latest country to do so, banned TV advertising for food products high in fat, salt and sugar between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

In Canada, an attempt was made to regulate ads aimed at children. Bill S-228, known as the Child Health Protection Act, was introduced with the intention of restricting the marketing of food and beverage products high in salt, saturated fat and sugar to children aged 12 years and younger. However, the bill never received further consideration by the federal government due to the 2019 election.

While Parliament hasn’t done anything on the issue since, Health Canada has provided guidelines for industry to consider and is examining the new U.K. rules on advertising.

Meanwhile, our food industry recently released a Code for the Responsible Advertising of Food and Beverage Products to Children. A coalition that includes most major processors and restaurants in Canada chose not to wait for the federal government to regulate this advertising.

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The announcement mentions that the code exceeds Health Canada’s recommendations. Perhaps, but many Canadians are skeptical of self-regulating proposals from industry. When it comes to public health issues, Canadians tend to trust governments more than industry.

There’s some science to not allowing marketing to persuade young consumers. Recent developments in neuroscience show that younger children’s cognitive development prevents them from making rational decisions when watching advertising and can skew judgment on what products are desirable. And marketing is all about creating desires.

Many countries have recognized this and regulated industry and its marketing practices, including Mexico, Iran, Chile and several in Europe.

According to Statistics Canada, nearly a third of Canadian children are overweight or obese, and the number of obese children may have gone up in recent months. COVID-19 lockdowns and continuing public safety measures have kept many children from organized sports and physical activities, putting a toll on their overall health.

This is one challenge regulators will have to keep in mind, whether they decide to regulate advertising to children or not.

But regulating advertising to children isn’t as simple as you may think. First, television isn’t how most children take in information these days. Internet streaming services and social media are the main vehicles used by many. Regulating anything on these platforms can be difficult.

In 1980, Quebec imposed a ban on advertisements for toys and food aimed at children under age 13 in print and electronic media. That ban has had mixed results since many people in Quebec watch media content broadcasted from outside the province. Also, food companies now advertise to older children, which makes the 13-year-old threshold difficult to implement in many social and commercial settings.

Bill C-10, aimed at updating Canada’s Broadcasting Act would have given the federal government more power to regulate more popular internet streaming services, such as Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix. Compliance would be expected of everyone, as it is now for traditional broadcasters such as CTV, Global and private radio stations.

Regulating the content of many media will be challenging, if not impossible. That’s just the way it is today. And with a federal election looming, Bill C-10 may suffer the same fate as Bill S-228 and never see the light of day.

Beyond regulations, however, is one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to promoting sound nutrition: education. Kids don’t buy these products, their parents do. Given that children are highly vulnerable, parents should continue to act as gatekeepers of fridges and cupboards in their homes.

It’s critical we don’t let parents off the hook, especially now. Industry will always innovate and be ahead of policy and regulations aimed at banning certain practices. When it comes to food, our best defence is good, responsible parenting.

Over time, society gets to decide the rights and wrongs by asking governments to act. Food advertising aimed at children may be one of these cases.

In the meantime, industry undoubtedly recognized we have a problem and released its code to limit advertising to children. We ought to give it a shot and see what happens over the next few years.

But the government should certainly put industry on notice. There’s nothing more precious than our children.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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