Madam Speaker, it is an honour to stand here among my colleagues and thank them all for their efforts and thoughtful debate on the child health protection act. I also want to thank Senator Nancy Greene Raine for her tireless work on the legislation and for entrusting me with helping to shepherd it through the House of Commons.
Childhood obesity is an epidemic. We know obesity is linked to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. During my career as a physician, I noticed more and more of my patients who presented were overweight or obese, and I was seeing instances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes in younger and younger people. This bill takes concrete steps to address this issue.
I have heard concerns that the bill would interfere with consumer and parental choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The legislation focuses squarely on marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and does not dictate what can be served or sold.
It is an axiom that advertising plays a role in dictating preferences and choices. Companies would not spend billions of dollars if that were not the case.
Children in today's society have a marked preference for unhealthy foods in large part because they face a barrage of ads targeted toward them that encourage that preference. If we were to restrict children's advertising to healthy foods, this would help encourage preferences for healthy foods.
I have heard critics ask what proof there is that such an approach would achieve the desired objective.
Although it is notoriously difficult to conclusively prove causality in any public health measure, it should be noted that in 1971, Quebec passed the Consumer Protection Act, forbidding all advertising of unhealthy foods to children less than 13 years of age. In the intervening years, Quebec has achieved the highest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption among children and the lowest child obesity rates in Canada.
Whereas correlation does not necessarily equal cause and effect, we can find no other cause for this positive trend, and we are confident this trend will continue if established nationally.
As I stated previously, should the legislation pass second reading and be referred to the Standing Committee on Health, I will be submitting amendments to it.
The first amendment would change the definition of children from under 17 years of age to under 13 years of age. During Health Canada's consultation with stakeholders, it has become increasingly obvious any regime built on restrictions aimed at older teenagers would be subject to considerable legal risks associated with the restriction on freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is a strong precedent for defining a child as under 13 in the context of advertising restrictions in Quebec, and the province has withstood a charter challenge that was fully upheld at the Supreme Court of Canada.
Recognizing there is evidence showing the vulnerability of teenagers to marketing, as well as the experience in Quebec where industry shifted marketing efforts to teenagers when restrictions were imposed on younger children, I will move another amendment to require Parliament to conduct a mandatory review of the legislation, with a particular focus on the definition of children, within five years of the act coming into force. Through the parliamentary review of the legislation, the government would also be obliged to report publicly on compliance with the bill and on progress toward our common goal of healthier children of all ages. This would ensure that, if necessary, we would have the data needed to support a broadening of restrictions at a future date.
Additionally, the Minister of Health clarified that sports sponsorships would be exempt to ensure activities promoting healthy lifestyles and choices would continue. This has been a concern for many of my colleagues, and I want to assure them little league hockey and other youth sports activities will not be jeopardized.
Before I wrap up, I want to make one quick aside.
Over a decade ago, I was involved in the debate on indoor smoking in Manitoba, as it is both a public health and occupational health issue. At that time, in an attempt to deflect, a number of people challenged me by saying that obesity was a much bigger threat than smoking, and asked what I was doing about that. Well, now, 15 years later, they have their answer. I am doing something to combat childhood obesity, and everyone in this chamber has the opportunity to do the same.
I am calling upon all members for their support to show we are united in fighting this epidemic.