Skip to main content

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ontario is considering banning companies from marketing junk food to children, stopping stores from building displays of the stuff near checkout tills and having restaurants print calorie counts on menus.

The ideas – among 23 recommendations in a report on curbing childhood obesity – are part of a government push to cut long-term health-care costs, even as it grapples with how far to go in legislating consumer behaviour.

The Healthy Kids Panel, co-chaired by Alex Munter and Kelly Murumets, paints an alarming picture: Over the past three decades, the prevalence of overweight children in the province has grown by 70 per cent. Health Minister Deb Matthews pledged to act on its recommendations, even if some of them are controversial.

"Not everyone will be comfortable with all of the steps we take, but we need to have an all-of-society conversation about this," she said. While some industry members expressed support for the concepts, not everyone agreed with the methods for implementing them.

The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, which is already working on a project to get more detailed nutritional information into restaurants – whether on eatery websites or fact sheets for diners – hailed the report. But the organization does not support putting calorie counts directly on menus, said Stephanie Jones, the industry group's vice-president for Ontario. She contended that putting all the relevant nutritional information, such as the level of sodium or carbohydrates, on a menu would be impractical.

"It doesn't provide us the means to provide legible and meaningful information to customers," she said.

Much of the country's food and beverage industry also takes part in a voluntary program that avoids targeting children with junk-food commercials. Under the agreement, industry heavyweights such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and General Mills either advertise only healthy foods during programming blocks directed at children under 12 or do not run ads in those time periods at all.

During a 2011 spot check by Advertising Standards Canada, which oversees the program, 92 per cent of food and beverage advertising during childrens' television was undertaken by companies that were part of the agreement.

ASC president Linda Nagel said that, when the program started in 2007, companies were eager to join.

"The fact is, the impetus was already there," she said. "Companies really are committed to responsible advertising to children."

Mr. Munter said legislation is necessary to supplement industry action to ensure all companies play by the same rules. "It would be fairer to all businesses to provide a level playing field," he said. "[Parents] often feel in competition with the marketing machine. They're doing the best for their kids and they're looking to government, businesses, professionals and others to back them up."

Ms. Matthews and a government committee will review the recommendations before coming up with an implementation plan. She said some of the ideas could be enacted "quite quickly."