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McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. is among big food advertisers who adhere to industry guidelines on advertising to children, but Health Canada is currently considering new regulations.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

A decade ago, the advertising industry in Canada adopted voluntary limits on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children – including those high in sugar. By its own measure, that effort is right on track.

In an annual report released last week, Advertising Standards Canada, a self-regulatory body for the industry, said that the biggest food advertisers – including McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd., Coca-Cola Ltd., and Nestle Canada Inc. – are holding to their commitments to advertise only food that meets certain nutritional standards to kids under 12, or not to advertise at all when more than 35 per cent of the audience is under 12. (Some companies choose limits as low as 25 per cent.)

Read: Soft drinks, hard decisions: What Canada is doing amid the global sugar-tax debate

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This program, known as the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, aims to allay concerns over children being lured, through the persuasive power of advertising, toward sugary, salty, fat-laden foods and drinks.

Participants have consistently been given high marks for compliance to the rules. But are those rules tough enough? Some influential voices say no.

Health Canada is currently considering new regulations that would impose broader restrictions on food advertising that is targeted at those under 17. One item up for discussion is whether to ban television advertising of certain kinds of foods during times when kids are most likely to be watching TV – weekday mornings, weekday evenings and weekends. In addition, a Senate bill has proposed amending the Food and Drugs Act to tighten rules on food advertising to children. It recently had its first reading in the House of Commons. And some are arguing for a crackdown that goes beyond advertising, advocating for a "sugar tax."

All of this is a response to a real health crisis: 9.9 per cent of girls and 14.7 per cent of boys in Canada are obese, numbers that have risen sharply since the mid-1970s. The regulation of advertising is seen as one tool in the fight against that trend, not only because children are susceptible to the tactics of persuasive messaging but because they are forming habits that could affect their health for the rest of their lives.

"It is not the case that kids who are 12 or 13 or possibly even 17, have all the protection that they need against advertiser content, or tactics," said David Boush, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, whose 1994 study showing that preteens have a skepticism toward ads by age 11 or 12 has been held up by groups arguing against the proposed advertising restrictions. "They had this attitude of skepticism at an early age, but really they were still filling in the gaps about how advertising works and the tactics that advertisers use."

The food industry has been grappling with this issue as well. The Canadian advertising initiative has tightened its criteria over time and is now monitoring online advertising more closely. Last year was the first full year in which participating companies who do advertise to kids had to ensure the products met new, tighter limits on calories, sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fats. However, this year, a study from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada called into question how effective this effort has been. It looked at the most popular websites visited by children and teens, and found ads for products high in sugar, salt or fat. The ASC says its findings are different – noting that the study included U.S.-based websites outside of its purview, and that its advertisers did not place ads on Canadian children's websites.

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"There are some groups that think this has had no effect. I can't agree with that," said Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards at Advertising Standards Canada. "…The compliance is really excellent."

Still, the Heart and Stroke study highlights the challenge of regulating food advertising at the national level, at a time when children have more access than ever to media from non-Canadian sources.

The advertising industry has long hoped that by regulating itself, it would establish that there is no need for further legislation. Canada already has an example of such restrictions being enshrined into law: Since 1980, Quebec has banned all advertising – including food – to children under 13.

"It's a challenge for some advertisers, because they really need to change their strategies and even the media buy in some circumstances," said Dominique Villeneuve, president and CEO of the Montreal-based Association of Creative Communications Agencies (A2C).

In October of 2015, Coca-Cola Ltd. paid $27,664 in fines after its 2014 sponsorship of a water park attraction called the "Zone Fanta" at the La Ronde amusement park in Montreal was found to violate the law.

"Children of these ages are more suggestible, and more vulnerable to advertising," Charles Tanguay, spokesperson for the office of consumer protection in Quebec, which oversees the law, said in an e-mail.

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Whether such bans have a tangible effect on health is a matter of some dispute. The Association of Canadian Advertisers has argued that while Quebec has one of the lowest rates of obesity among Canada's provinces, the rate of growth in obesity tracks roughly with other parts of the country. If the ad ban were effective, it says, the growth in obesity would be slower than parts of the country with looser rules.

The question is, does restricting advertising lead to a lower propensity to indulge in unhealthy foods? A 2011 study found that francophone households with children in Quebec were 13 per cent less inclined to spend money on fast food compared to other groups. Tirtha Dhar, a professor in the department of marketing and consumer studies at the University of Guelph, who conducted the study, could not access data on household spending before 1980 to measure the effect of the law. Instead, he looked at other groups such as francophone households without children in Quebec, francophones outside Quebec, and anglophone households with and without children in the province – those less likely to watch shows made for children broadcast from within Quebec, and thus subject to the ban – and found a difference in spending patterns.

It takes some extrapolation to link this directly to the ad ban, Prof. Dhar said. But he added, it builds on prior research showing francophone children in Quebec expressed less preference for certain brands of cereals and toys compared to children not as affected by the ban.

"If you look at the literature globally, there is a strong case to make that there should be some regulation on targeting children," he said. However he acknowledged that with the shift in media consumption habits, such regulation could prove difficult.

"It's not only the ban that's important," he said. "It's how we educate our children in how to make decisions."

Editor’s note: Tirtha Dhar's last name has been corrected in the online version of this story.

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