moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise today to discuss my bill, Bill C-252. I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank my colleagues for all their support and hard work in advancing the bill.
Bill C-252 essentially seeks to prohibit the marketing of foods that contain excessive amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fats to children below the age of 13.
Additionally, the bill contains a provision that would mandate Health Canada to monitor the impact of the bill on the marketing of foods and beverages to teenagers between ages 13 and 18. This is done in an effort to ensure that food companies and advertisers will not simply turn around and amp up their marketing to teenagers to compensate for these new limits. Hence, the bill would provide an opportunity to verify the impact of this legislation and make adjustments if necessary.
One of the most concerning health issues for Canadians today is childhood obesity. To date, one in three children in Canada is either overweight or obese. We know that obesity leads to higher lifetime risk of developing severe health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Obesity increases the risk of at least 11 different cancers, and evidence has shown that diet-related diseases now kill more Canadians than smoking. In 2019, dietary risk factors contributed to an estimated 36,000 deaths, and the burden of chronic diseases, impacted mainly by diet and other modifiable risk factors, has been estimated to cost $13.8 billion in Canada.
Despite these dire consequences, the proportion of obese children has nearly tripled in the last 25 years. Our government has recognized these issues, and that was why it launched, in 2016, the healthy eating strategy to help make the healthier choice the easier choice for Canadians.
In 2019, the revised Canada's food guide provided Canadians with relevant, consistent and credible dietary guidance. In 2020, sodium reduction targets were published to encourage sodium reduction in food supply. However, there is still more work to be done.
It is a well-established fact that one of the major explanations for obesity is attributed to food marketing to children. The World Health Organization recognized the marketing of foods and beverages to children to be problematic as early as 2010. In fact, in a recent policy brief, it went as far as to call the evidence that food marketing altered food preferences, choices and purchases as unequivocal. Furthermore, the World Health Organization stated that food marketing not only affected children's physical health, but it also “threatens their emotional, mental and spiritual well-being”.
Children in Canada are currently being exposed to hundreds of ads every day. Whether it is through TV, online, video games or other forms of marketing, children are a highly targeted market. This is worrisome, because we know that children are especially vulnerable and susceptible to marketing. They are less able to understand or question the purpose or essence of the marketing and, as such, become easy targets of influence as they absorb and accept the messages.
A 2017 report on the health of Canadians has shown that well over 90% of food and beverage product advertisements viewed by children online or on TV have been for products that are high in sugars, sodium and saturated fats. It is not surprising then to learn that kids aged nine through 13 get more calories, almost 60%, from ultra-processed foods than any other age group.
This is especially problematic, because childhood is the period during which children learn and develop lifelong eating habits, and we know just how impactful food marketing is on the eating habits of our children.
We currently have a situation where corporations that produce foods and beverages with excessive amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fats are allowed to market and target them to the most vulnerable members of our society, who then adopt problematic eating habits.
Furthermore, a 2018 UNICEF report argued that unhealthy food marketing to children constituted a violation of a number of children's rights as recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes children's right “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.”
Bill C-252 would give us the tools to end the marketing of foods that contain the three excessive ingredients to kids and would enable them to make better and healthier food choices for themselves.
There have been some critiques of the bill. Some have said that it is not needed, because the Association of Canadian Advertisers has developed a code, “Code for the Responsible Advertising of Food and Beverage Products to Children”, which sets some limits on what is considered reasonable advertising of foods and beverages to children. They have argued that the code is enough and therefore any further legislative efforts is superfluous. To that I would say absolutely not.
A significant amount of research has shown time and again that self-regulatory codes do not work, as they are voluntary in nature and make it too easy for industry players to amp up or simply opt out. On the other hand, the development of a code clearly demonstrates that the industry players recognize the existence of a problem with marketing to kids. While this recognition is welcomed, ultimately their efforts simply do not suffice.
Dr. Warshawski, chair of the board of directors at the Childhood Obesity Foundation, during his appearance at the Standing Committee on Health, stated, “The fox should not...guard the henhouse”. We only have to look at the United Kingdom and Spain. They are respectively developing regulations to prohibit the marketing of foods to children after having witnessed first-hand that there was no positive outcomes from their existing self-regulatory industry codes.
Others have expressed concern that Bill C-252 could capture and prohibit the marketing of foods that are pantry stables, such as bread or milk. Let me be clear that is not the aim of this bill. The way the bill is framed it specifically directs Health Canada to develop regulations with the necessary nuances.
As Dr. Sharma from Health Canada repeatedly explained during her appearance at the health standing committee that the phrasing of this bill allowed for the creation of categories rather than the targeting of specific foods, which in turn would allow for a nuanced implementation and application.
In other words, foods that contain high levels of one of the targeted nutrients, but which are generally considered to be beneficial to children’s diets, such as fruits that contain high levels of sugars, would easily be exempted from the legislation. This process would be entirely based on an extensive regulatory process that would not only include consultations with a variety of actors, but also be based on strong scientific evidence regarding the nutritional needs of our children.
Some have also attempted to deform the bill and make it into something that it is not, which is an attempt to tell parents what they can and cannot buy for their children. This is simply and unequivocally false. Having raised three children myself, I strongly believe that parents have all the freedom in deciding and choosing how they want to raise and feed their children.
Bill C-252 does not target parents and adults, but strictly children. It is about removing the possibility of a billion dollar industry to reach our vulnerable children and manipulate them through the marketing techniques that will lure them into desiring products that we know could be detrimental to their health. Parents are and remain fully responsible for the food choices they make for their kids. The bill is simply about evening out the playing field and ensuring that parents can make decisions about the nutrition of their children without having to push back against powerful outside influences.
Finally, some have tried to argue that the bill should not be adopted because it would preclude other aspects of health from being addressed. For example, some people have said that the bill should not be adopted because they perceive it as a risk to the continuation of sports sponsorship and community sports. I would invite them to look at Quebec, as it serves as a model whereby sports sponsorship aimed at children has been restricted for over 40 years, yet community sports are still very much alive and well in the province. My bill’s focus on specific nutrients leaves plenty of space for a modified approach to sports sponsorship.
Similarly, critiques have advanced that, instead of passing this bill, we should focus on encouraging children to be more active. This view represents a very limited and ultimately insufficient approach to health. There is no doubt whatsoever that sports and physical activity play an important role in protecting the health of our children. However, health is a multifactorial element, and diet is just as important as physical activity. As such, our government has committed to significant investments to encourage children to move and to participate in team sports, notably with a $10-million investment in the recent 2023 budget. The supposed opposition between my bill and an approach more focused on active living is simply uncalled for. Both healthy eating and physical activity can, and in fact should, coexist. Ultimately, this is not a magic bullet that could fix childhood obesity all on its own. It is, however, an absolutely needed and key component of a broader, comprehensive strategy that needs to address this important issue.
It is also worth reminding everyone that this bill has been a long time coming. As many members may know, there have been previous attempts to advance similar legislation, which suffered from significant push-back. Most notable is former senator Nancy Greene Raine’s efforts with Bill S-228, which unfortunately got stalled in the Senate and died on the Order Paper. Similarly, we witnessed efforts by the opposition to stall this bill at the committee stage. Some members have even tried to represent the bill as lacking in consultation with stakeholders, when in fact we have heard, time and time again, the same arguments from the food and advertising industries, which have deployed extensive resources in trying to block this legislation. Industries have had plenty of opportunities to express their concerns regarding this bill, which have been heard and have been taken into account in my version of Bill C-252. Industries would continue to have opportunities to express themselves throughout the regulatory process.
In Canada, we have the chance to have a remarkable consensus across party lines regarding our approach to health. We all believe in the importance of working to ensure the healthiest possible life for every single Canadian, no matter their age or their means. Ultimately, I believe that every member of Parliament has good reasons to support this bill. That is why I would like to say to my colleagues that we should make sure we act as quickly as possible to get this bill passed. It is long overdue, and our children deserve it.