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Why marketing to kids must stop

Our children are bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and beverages, and it’s harming their health

By Carol Dombrow RD 

The federal government has made a commitment to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids, but has not yet fulfilled this promise. Heart & Stroke dietitian Carol Dombrow explains why the time to act is now.

What is marketing to kids?  
The line between children’s entertainment and ads is often blurry, with marketing messages popping up where our kids learn and play. Each year, the Canadian food and beverage industry spends $1.1 billion on the marketing of foods and beverages to children, with kids seeing an estimated 1,500 ads annually on social media alone. Marketing to children is much more seamless, sophisticated, and interactive than it was 10 to 15 years ago.

Do these tactics really work?
Yes! This marketing appeals to children, builds brand loyalty and impacts the foods kids eat. Research shows kids as young as three can recognize or name food and beverage brands and prefer foods from a favoured brand. Children also influence what foods their parents buy, “pestering” them to purchase certain products.

Why do we need restrictions?
Most marketing to kids is for unhealthy foods and beverages. For example, more than 50 million food and beverage ads appear on the top 10 children’s websites each year, and over 90% of them are for ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, cookies and chicken nuggets. This type of eating crowds out the healthy foods, like vegetables and fruit, whole grains and protein foods that our children need, and increases their risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer later in life. 

Do restrictions already exist in Canada?
Yes. Quebec has had legislation since 1980 that prohibits commercial advertising directed at children under 13. It has helped the province achieve the highest fruit and vegetable consumption levels and the lowest obesity rates in Canada among children ages 6-11. Even so, Quebec’s advertising restrictions allow some ads to slip through.

Nationally, the food and beverage industry set its own standards for restricting the advertising of certain food and beverages to children almost 25 years ago. But the standards are voluntary and not all companies participate.

In June 2021, the Canadian food and beverage and broadcast industries released a new “code” similar to restrictions in Quebec, but it falls short. The bottom-line is that research across the world has shown that voluntary standards are not effective in protecting children from marketing of unhealthy foods.

Advocating for change 
Heart & Stroke is calling on the federal government to restrict the marketing of certain foods and beverages to children under the age of 13 because:
• Ultra-processed foods are not part of a healthy eating pattern in Canada’s Food Guide and are linked to an increase in heart disease, stroke and cancers.
• Restricting the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children will protect children and support parents as they help their children develop healthy eating habits and food preferences.
• People want to see this change! 75 per cent of Canadians support restricting the marketing of food and beverages high in salt, sugars and saturated fat to children under 13.

Heart & Stroke is looking forward to seeing the federal government move quickly to fulfill its long-held commitment to restrict marketing to kids as part of the implementation of Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy

Dietitian Carol Dombrow has worked with Heart & Stroke for over 30 years. She has particularly enjoyed working to support policy changes aimed at improving the food supply.

Reproduced with the permission of Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. www.heartandstroke.ca

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