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Junk food needs graphic warning labels similar to tobacco, Ontario doctors say

The Ontario Medical Association says junk food should be treated the same way as tobacco, slapped with higher taxes and packaged with graphic warning labels, similar to this mockup.


Will your pizza come with a picture of a decayed, fatty liver? How about a bottle of pop with a close-up shot of a blood-red diabetic foot ulcer?

The Ontario Medical Association says junk food should be treated the same way as tobacco, slapped with higher taxes and packaged with graphic warning labels.

"There's an epidemic of obesity in our society. ... We want to do something to turn back the clock," OMA president Doug Weir said in an interview.

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He noted that 31 per cent of children in Ontario are now overweight or obese, compared with 18 per cent in the early 1990s. Obesity is estimated to add $2-billion each year to the province's health-care costs because of resulting illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, heart or liver problems or chronic kidney diseases.

"If we want to keep health care sustainable in the province, we have to do something," Weir said.

In a policy paper in this month's issue of the Ontario Medical Review, the OMA said the success of anti-tobacco campaigns shows that there is now more tolerance for what may be perceived as manipulative or coercive measures.

"Unlike food, tobacco products are unique in that they have no safe level of use, but lessons can still be learned from the very significant reduction in smoking rates and the methodologies employed to achieve these," the paper said.

In addition to higher taxes and graphic labels, the OMA is proposing that the marketing of unhealthy food to children be restricted and that retail displays of such snacks include information about their health impact.

The OMA says it was thanks to vigorous anti-tobacco campaigns that the public perception about smoking changed to the point that the province has gone from having a rate of nearly 50 per cent of residents who smoked in the 1960s to less than 20 per cent today.

The Ontario government announced last spring that it wants to reduce childhood obesity by 20 per cent over five years. "If they're going to achieve that target, they're going to have to take some of the aggressive measures that we are recommending," Weir said.

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Nutrition experts could be enlisted to define what level of fat or caloric content would make an item qualify as junk food, he said. "People can still eat junk food. We're not doing anything to stop them from eating it," Weir said. "But we want them to be aware of what they're doing."

"We appreciate the advice from the OMA," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said without further commitment because the government is waiting for the recommendations of its Healthy Kids Panel.

Food & Consumer Products of Canada, an industry association, objected to the idea of higher taxes, saying there is "no one solution" to obesity.

"Food is not tobacco. Tobacco has no place in a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A tax on food and beverages is nothing but a tax grab that will hurt lower- and middle-income Ontarians the most," FCPC vice-president Phyllis Tanaka said in a statement, which noted that she is a registered dietitian.

The FCPC did not comment on the idea of graphic warning labels, saying only that "consumer education and more product choice will lead to real results."

The group also noted that Denmark, which last fall introduced a "fat tax" on food with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, has since dropped the surcharge.

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However, the fiscal precedent has already long been established in Canada, where the goods and services tax is applied on snack food but not on basic groceries.

The OMA has been an advocate of calorie labelling. It has called for restaurants and cafeterias to post the calorie and salt content of their dishes so that patrons can make a better choice.

In 2000, Canada became the first country to force cigarette makers to have labels featuring ghastly images of rotting gums and emaciated cancer patients. Other countries, including New Zealand and Mexico, have adopted the approach but not the United States, where a recent court ruling said the visuals were "unabashed attempts to evoke emotion … and browbeat consumers into quitting."

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