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MPs debate bill that would outlaw advertising sugar to Canadian kids

The bill seeks to forbid ads for sugary food and drinks aimed at kids under 13.
In this Dec. 14, 2010, file photo, a woman shops through the cereal aisle as her daughter catches a short nap in the shopping cart at a store in Waco, Texas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tony Gutierrez

OTTAWA — Trix may be for kids, but a Quebec Liberal MP does not want that kind of cereal or other sugary foods marketed that way anymore.

A parliamentary health committee is discussing Patricia Lattanzio's private member's bill, which seeks to reduce childhood obesity by forbidding advertisements for sugary food and drinks aimed at kids under 13.

Conservatives have opposed the bill, which passed an initial vote in the House of Commons in September, on the basis that it may create a whole bunch of regulations without accomplishing the goal of actually changing kids' eating habits.

But the NDP has indicated support for the prospective law.

"I think we have to send a clear message: if we want to protect our kids from the very, very effective and sophisticated advertising techniques, and billions of dollars spent to try to attract children to products that will harm their health, then I think that has to be the dominant goal of this bill," health critic Don Davies told the committee Thursday.

The committee has opted not to hear from any witnesses outside of the government before debating the proposed legislation line by line.

Animated mascots advertised sugary, fatty, salty treats in commercials that ran alongside Saturday morning cartoons for decades, but in the bill, Lattanzio makes the case that ads have spread well beyond traditional media to include the internet and celebrity and character endorsement.

"It is therefore critical that restrictions on the marketing of food and beverages to children cover all potential marketing media in a broad and robust fashion in order to provide adequate protection to young Canadians," the bill states.

Health Canada did a large-scale consultation on the idea in 2017. It found that the public and health professionals supported restrictions on unhealthy food and drink ads to kids, while members of the industry were resistant. 

There are industry-led initiatives to keep advertisers from specifically tempting children with tasty — and unhealthy — food and drinks, but Health Canada's chief medical advisory is expressing reservations about those efforts.

Dr. Supriya Sharma pointed to the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative as one avenue that doesn't appear to be working. 

"When we looked at the ads that were directed to children and teens for foods that were high in salt, sugar and fat, three-quarters of those ads were from industry that were signatories to that initiative," Sharma told the committee Wednesday.

This summer, Ad Standards, a self-regulatory organization, will also start enforcing a new code that prohibits food and drink ads targeted at children unless they meet specific nutrition criteria.

Sharma said the drawback of that approach is that industry self-regulation isn't held accountable by an independent process that can deal with violations.

Once the committee offers its recommendations on the bill, it will go back to the House of Commons for a final vote. Then the Senate will go through a similar process.

If the legislation is adopted by both houses of Parliament, more-specific regulations would be drawn up by Health Canada, and the ban on ads for treats would come into force after one year. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press