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Canada’s food and beverage giants are fighting back against proposed legislation that would ban marketing of unhealthy food to children, calling the bill a “significant overreach” that would lead to job losses and serious consequences for the economy.

In a letter to Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor dated June 5, industry groups representing major food and beverage companies say Bill S-228 is too restrictive and would prohibit them from advertising many products to adults as well as children.

The signatories, which include the Association of Canadian Advertisers, the Canadian Beverage Association, Food & Consumer Products of Canada and Restaurants Canada, wrote the letter to say problems with the proposed changes make it “impossible” for them to complete Health Canada’s cost-benefit analysis, which the department is working on before the legislation is passed. The cost-benefit analysis asks companies a series of questions, such as how much they spend on advertising to children.

“We have some very real concerns that there will be significant impacts on industry’s ability to market to adults,” said Ron Lund, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers.

In the letter, the group said the changes could result in 30,000 lost jobs and slash advertising spending by more than $1.1 billion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to introduce the marketing ban as a way of addressing growing concerns around childhood obesity and other chronic diseases tied to food and drinks high in fat, sodium and sugar. The legislation, which promises to restrict all forms of advertising of unhealthy food to those under 13, is expected to pass when Parliament resumes in the fall.

Health Canada is currently writing regulations to enforce the marketing ban. The regulations will set out a definition for “unhealthy” food and will also spell out how it will determine if advertisements are aimed at children under 13, among other things. Under the proposal, unhealthy foods such as carbonated soda, flavoured milk or sugary cereal could not be advertised on TV or another setting where the audience is more than 15 per cent children.

In an interview, Mr. Lund said that Health Canada did not consult with some industry stakeholders and that some of the proposed new rules would make it virtually impossible to advertise many foods and beverages to any age group. For instance, the regulations could mean that the use of all colourful characters, celebrities or movie tie-ins could be considered as directed at children, meaning they would be off limits.

Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, said he believes the industry’s arguments are part of a broader strategy to push Health Canada to adopt weaker regulations that will still enable them to get their marketing message to children.

“It’s no surprise to me they’re beginning to take the gloves off,” he said. “The industry is feeling very threatened.”

Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said the industry’s reluctance to participate in Health Canada’s cost-benefit analysis seems to indicate they don’t want to publicly state how much they spend on advertising to children.

“They just don’t want anyone to know that they spend this kind of money marketing unhealthy foods and beverages to kids,” Mr. Arango said.

In written statements, Food & Consumer Products of Canada and Restaurants Canada said their concerns with the cost-benefit analysis centre on the scope of information the government is requesting and how it will be used.

Mr. Warshawski said the industry’s arguments that these changes will hurt the economy don’t hold water, because jurisdictions such as Britain have already implemented similar legislation without those negative consequences. He said he hopes the government doesn’t get dissuaded and makes these changes in order to help the future health of children.

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