Basically, this bill seeks to amend the Food and Drugs Act to specifically prohibit the marketing of “foods and beverages that contribute to excess sugar, saturated fats or sodium in children’s diets” to persons who are under 13 years of age. As a result, this bill specifically targets the marketing of sugary drinks, for the most part. The bill also provides for a review of the results of these measures by a House, Senate or joint committee in five years.
This bill seeks to address a rather serious problem. One need only consider the statistics. A 2016 report by the public health officer for Quebec indicated that 52% of the population, both adults and children, were overweight and that 18% were obese. According to the most optimistic projections, we can expect those numbers to increase to 54% and 21%, respectively, by 2030. That is a rather sharp rise.
If we focus on the statistics for children across Canada, we can see some marked differences over the past decades. For example, between 1978-79 and 2004, the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity among children aged two to 17 increased from 15% to 26%. Increases were highest among youth aged 12 to 17 years, with overweight and obesity more than doubling for this age group, from 14% to 29%.
This is an urgent problem that must be addressed, in light of all of the comorbidities associated with being overweight or obese, such as cardiovascular diseases. These diseases are the first to come to mind, especially since they were the leading cause of death in 2012. Another example is diabetes, which can be connected fairly directly to sugary drinks. Other examples would be various musculoskeletal disorders, such as arthritis, and other degenerative diseases that are generally highly debilitating. I also want to point out the higher prevalence of certain cancers that are comorbid with overweight and obesity, such as endometrial, breast, ovary, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney and colon cancers. This is a global problem that will become worse if nothing is done.
The bill specifically addresses advertising aimed at children. It is interesting to look at the impact that advertising can have on children in general. We can see that, without realizing it, our little ones are increasingly being seen as prospective consumers. We tend to forget that. Here are some interesting facts.
As we know, children have both direct and indirect economic power. They influence nearly 40% of family purchases. Direct spending by children is also on a steady rise around the world. In Canada, in 2004, children aged four to 12 influenced $20 billion in family purchases. This is indirect influence. In 2002, four million children aged two to 12 were estimated to have spent $1.5 billion of their pocket money. In 2006, the figure was $3 billion. The same thing is happening in the United States, where the amount doubles from one decade to the next.
We also know that there is a business strategy behind advertising aimed at children. The goal is to build customer loyalty at an early age. We know that, from the age of six months, babies have the ability to form mental images of corporate logos and mascots. By the age of three, one in five American children demand specific brands of products. Of the six brand names most recognized by toddlers, four are from the food industry.
In all, 93% of children aged three to five recognize the McDonald's logo. The fact that they recognize it is one thing, but does it work? Here is an interesting fact. When researchers present children aged three to five with fries in McDonald's packaging and the same fries in other packaging, they systematically prefer the fries in the McDonald's packaging. Clearly, it has an impact.
This takes me back 15 years to when I was starting my law studies. One of the first courses I took, and loved, was a consumer rights course taught by Pierre-Claude Lafond, who encouraged me to pursue my training. We were already seeing the impact of legislation on advertising, such as American drug ads, which are very long and state the name of the drug, what it is used for, its many side effects and more. In contrast, in Canada, companies cannot say both the name of the drug and what it is used for. Ads here encourage people to talk to their doctor.
It is the same thing for children's toys. I remember that when I was very young, I would always change the channel to see American ads because they were so much more interesting to me. As children, we saw toys of all kinds, so it obviously had an impact.
The bill does have its limits. I therefore encourage the committee that will study it, and the committee responsible for the five-year review, to look closely at certain issues.
For this to be effective, for us to really combat obesity and overweight among children, we need to look at more than just advertising. This bill must be part of a broader movement. Take Quebec, for example, which in 2019 introduced an action plan to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and to promote water. Quebec not only has its own legislation to prohibit advertising to kids under 13, it also has its own policy on the subject.
I would remind members that Quebec did not take part in developing any federal framework. If the goal is to create legislation to restrict advertising, it is important that this be done in conjunction with the provinces. The member for Sarnia—Lambton pointed out that kids are less active than they used to be. Everything related to health, in general, falls under provincial jurisdiction. We must therefore ensure co-operation between the federal government, in terms of the Food and Drugs Act, and the provincial jurisdictions. I therefore suggest that this be studied in committee.
As I mentioned to the member for Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, we also need to make sure that we are truly able to eliminate false advertising. That is something that Professor Lafond talked about in the course I took with him.
Quebec has an excellent law, but our consumer protection board, the OPC, which is responsible for monitoring compliance, was unable to keep up with demand. Professor Lafond explained to us that only the most blatant cases were taken off the air because the OPC did not have the necessary resources to deal with all of the requests and complaints. By the way, a complaint has to be filed in order for an ad to be taken off the air.
Since this is a private member's bill and these types of bills generally do not involve any expenditures, perhaps we should consider how the terms of this legislation can be implemented effectively.
It is important to remember that there can always be a sort of grey area between what is considered an ad directed specifically at children and what it not. The industry is quite creative on that score.
In 2019, Quebec produced a report on food advertising directed at children, and it listed several ways that companies get around the law. Think of food in the shape of a toy. To what extent is that an ad directed at children? Think of seasonal packaging and designs based on popular current movies. Are they directed more at children or adults, depending on the film? Think of the use of popular or trademark characters, funny wordplay, and products designed in a smaller size or with a toy included to appeal specifically to children.
What about ads posted in family areas? Are they directed specifically at children? We also have to look at how food is displayed on grocery store shelves. What about the font used in an ad, or references to magic or fantasy? I suggest that all these things be studied by the committee that will be reviewing the bill to make it as effective as possible, or so we hope.