Why Ontario’s Healthy Active Kids Panel’s report is so important (with one caveat)

If you’re an Ontarian, by now I’m sure you’ve heard a fair bit about Ontario’s release yesterday of the recommendations made by our Healthy Kids Panel.

I’m not going to go into a point by point discussion and dissection. Overall the report’s solid. It makes 23 recommendations and as I was warned in an off-the-record chat with one of the panel members this past weekend, they might not be my top 23 items, but as I told the panel member, that’s not what matters. What matters is that they’re not all fluff, and more importantly what matters is that many of them have their sights set very squarely on the environment.

This is not your average Eat Less, Move More report. Instead this is a report that recognizes that the world in which we’re raising our kids pushes them into the open arms of food marketers, of piles of sugar, and of boatloads of calories. Kids aren’t trying to gain weight, their parents aren’t encouraging them to eat poorly – that’s just our new default – our new normal.

While it’s no doubt going to take more than 23 sandbags to build a levee, and while no doubt some of these 23 sandbags are merely beanbags, while others may have a few holes in them, what’s so incredibly encouraging is that this is in fact a levee building report, and not the usual tripe about how we’re going to manage a flood by teaching kids how to swim.

I do have to add one caveat though: I don’t support the report’s call for a ban on junk food advertising. Why? Simple: It’s not enough.

It’s not enough for a number of reasons.

First, it’s not enough because why should anything be advertised to a population that has been shown to not be able to discern truth from advertising? If we’re talking ethics, it’s plainly unethical to allow advertising to target children. Period.

Second, it’s not enough because at least one recent study suggests the possibility that advertisements for food, any food, even healthy food like fruit, paradoxically lead children to increase consumption of calories and unhealthy dietary choices.

Third, it’s not enough because there’s no agreed upon definitions for what would constitute unhealthy food. In turn not calling for a total food advertising ban at best necessitates long and drawn out discussions to try to define unhealthy and at worst, simply paralyzes the process.

Finally, it’s not enough because even if a definition of “unhealthy” is agreed upon, food manufacturers will take advantage of the new definition of “unhealthy” to make products that come in one squeak better than that – and then not only continue to market them, but to market them with their newly found health halo – because after all, if they’re allowed to advertise them, consumers will automatically assume that they must be “healthy“.

And I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way as evidenced by a wonderful paper coming from a whole boatload of Canadian friends and colleagues from across the country. Published just last week in the Journal of Public Health Policy (and freely accessible) is a paper entitled, Restricting marketing to children: Consensus on policy interventions to address obesitywhere their evidence based consensus opinions include the following stronger than the recent Health Kids Panel report’s recommendations:

  • A Canadian (federal) government-led national regulatory system prohibiting all commercial marketing of foods and beverages to children under 18 years of age, with exceptions for ‘approved public health campaigns promoting healthy diets’
  • That regulators set minimum standards, assure monitoring of compliance, and impose penalties for non-compliance.

Importantly they also define marketing in a realistically broad sense of the term,

We recommend adoption of a broad definition of marketing that includes, but is not limited to, all media through which children are or can be targeted, such as ‘sponsorship, product placement, sales promotion, cross-promotions using celebrities, brand mascots, or characters popular with children, Websites, packaging, point-of-purchase displays, e-mails, and text messages, philanthropic activities tied to branding opportunities, and communication through ‘viral marketing’.

So while I was thrilled to see a call targeting advertising in Monday’s Healthy Kids Panel report, it’s not enough, and moreover, if enacted, would be almost certainly be ineffective and potentially even harmful.

And my bet is, the food industry representatives who were full voting members of that panel – I bet they didn’t raise one peep of concern when a junk food advertising ban was suggested as it was the best possible advertising recommendation they could have hoped for. I’d go even further and bet that they were even vocal champions of it during the committee meetings. Government: Next time, by all means let the food industry come to testify in front of the next such committee and ensure their concerns are heard, but for the love of god, next time, don’t give them a vote.

Still, this caveat aside, kudos to our Health Minister Deb Matthews for making childhood obesity prevention a priority, and with this panel’s help, for rightly identifying that it’s the world around our kids that’s the problem, and that the kids indeed are alright.

Fingers crossed too that this report, unlike many of our federally funded reports, does in fact translate into action, and isn’t simply tucked into a drawer somewhere.

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Yoni Freedhoff


Yoni is a family doctor and the founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute – a multi-disciplinary, ethical, evidence-based nutrition and weight management centre. He blogs at Weighty Matters.

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