Tom Warshawski is an expert with EvidenceNetwork.ca, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. Mary Lewis is vice-president of research, advocacy and health promotion at the Heart and Stroke Foundation – which is a founding member of the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition.
We shield our children and young teenagers from many things: Kids 16 and under are protected from overt portrayals of sex and violence on TV and in movies, and from drinking alcohol, smoking, owning guns and signing contracts, to name a few.
The reasons we do this are sound. We hope to keep our youth from physical and psychological harm, prevent them from falling into bad habits or taking actions with long-term consequences they may not fully understand.
We protect them so they can have the best possible future.
Yet we let them down in one vital area: a healthy relationship with food. In this we leave our youth alone and exposed to find their own way in a brutal marketplace.
Failing to set our youth on a path to a healthy relationship with food is leading to significant health problems now – and promising shorter and sicker lives in the future.
Since 1979, the number of Canadian children with obesity has tripled, with almost one in three children now having excess weight. Increases have been highest among youth aged 12 to 17.
Evidence shows that obesity rates are influenced by the amount of marketing kids are exposed to, and it puts them at risk for many health problems, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Marketing is big business and it is sophisticated. Millions of dollars are spent targeting children and youth through multiple channels, including via TV and social media. New Canadian research reveals that over 90 per cent of food and beverage ads viewed by kids and teens online are for unhealthy products. The most frequently advertised products on sites frequented by teens include cakes, cookies and ice cream, cereal, restaurants and sugary drinks.
Against this backdrop of pervasive marketing is the fact that less than half of Canadian youth ages 12-19 eat the recommended minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
It has been found that children who view fast-food television ads are approximately 50 per cent more likely to eat fast food. Regular consumption of fast food is associated with ingesting an extra 800 calories a week for boys and 660 calories for girls, translating into a possible weight gain of 10 pounds or more per year.
Quebec saw the light many years ago. Since 1980, Quebec has banned all commercial advertising directed at children under age 13.
Current legislation before the Senate of Canada similarly proposes a ban on the advertising of food and beverages to Canadian children age 13 and under. The proposed legislation is an excellent first step. But crucially, the legislation needs to go further and be amended to protect children up to age 16. We need to give healthy eating habits a fighting chance.
We would not be alone. Other countries, like Britain, have followed the evidence and have similar restrictions on food and beverage advertising to children up to age 16.
There is increasing evidence that teens are particularly vulnerable to food and beverage marketing and consume more of it than younger children. The actions and reactions of teenagers are often guided by the parts of the brain connected to emotion and reward/gratification; this makes teenagers very susceptible to unhealthy impulses – a fact that will surprise no parent. Research also shows teens can critique advertisements when prompted to do so, but on their own are likely to believe advertising and accept misleading claims.
There is no longer any doubt that exposing teens to unhealthy food and beverage marketing puts them at risk.
In a survey of 128 international experts on food, nutrition and obesity, most respondents recommended restrictions on food and beverage advertising until at least until age 16, and more than half recommended an age-18 restriction.
When we want a young person to grow up with certain values and behaviours, we ensure that is what they are taught, see consistently from role models and experience themselves. It is called good parenting and good education.
So why do we allow our young people to be continuously bombarded with the opposite of good eating messages and then expect them to grow up with healthy eating habits?
It's time we added food and beverage advertising to the list of protections we afford our children and teenagers.