Total ban on marketing unhealthy food to Canuck kids in the cards?

Strong recommendations, aimed primarily at alleviating child obesity, were delivered at this week's Policy Consensus Forum on Obesity and the Impact of Marketing on Children. 'These findings,' a marketing strategist tells MiC, 'suggest the environment for marketing to children has just changed in ways that could go beyond food and beverage products and services.'

On Wednesday, a panel of prominent Canadians including educators, Aboriginal, community and youth leaders, journalists, public policy researchers, academics and authors recommended to the federal minister of health a plan to ensure that unhealthy food and beverages are not marketed to children.

The panel, hosted in Ottawa by the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, considered options ranging from the current system of self-regulation to the Quebec model, which bans all advertising to children. While recognizing the industry’s efforts at self-regulation and promoting healthier lifestyles, the panel found that the current regulatory system was never developed to cope with the variety of marketing devices now used to sell food and beverage products to children. The panel expressed the view that a ban could be avoided if their major recommendations were put into practice:

1. A panel of public health experts will develop precise definitions of what constitutes ‘unhealthy food’ and ‘children.’ While they will meet with marketers, consumers and others, the final definitions will be tied to public health research.

2. Once defined, there will be an immediate ban on all marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products – including advertising, Internet-based communications/promotions, sales promotions, price promotions, celebrity endorsements, advergames, etc. – to children and, in some cases, even to parents.

3. If the panel is unable to operationally define ‘unhealthy food’ within two years, it will call on the government to ban all food and beverage marketing to children.

Ken Wong, associate professor, business and marketing strategy at Queen’s School of Business, was a member of the panel. ‘These findings suggest the environment for marketing to children has just changed in ways that could go beyond food and beverage products and services,’ he tells MiC. ‘This is no longer an advertising issue, but rather one that impacts all aspects of businesses focused on the child market, from promotion to pricing to product formulation and retailing.’

In Wong’s opinion, the most significant element in this context is research suggesting that children’s developmental stage renders them particularly vulnerable to marketing messages. When that vulnerability is attached to anything that contributes to childhood obesity, or any health-related condition, he says the regulatory environment moves from the Competition Act and self-regulation to the Ministry of Health. And the result is an entirely different official process.

‘For example, since a sedentary lifestyle contributes to childhood obesity, one could see the emergence of activists and others calling for a ban on the child-directed marketing of products that encourage a sedentary lifestyle – videogames, DVDs and so on,’ Wong explains. ‘Moreover, even positive marketing programs would not survive. Camps, hockey sponsorship and other cause-related marketing – even the milk calendar – could be banned if an all-out ban on food marketing to children was approved.

‘These contingencies were explicitly noted in the recommendations,’ he adds. ‘Fortunately, the recommendations do allow industry to take the appropriate actions and make the case so that such extreme actions don’t occur. But the window of opportunity will close quickly. It’s hard to argue when children’s health becomes the issue.’

As MiC reported last month, the Advertising Standards of Canada has pledged to ‘shift the landscape of advertising to children under 12.’

Joining in the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (first announced in April 2007) are 16 top marketers, including Campbell Canada, General Mills Canada, Kellogg Canada, Kraft Canada, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, Nestlé Canada, Parmalat Canada, Weston Bakeries, Cadbury Adams Canada, Coca-Cola Canada, Hershey Canada, Janes Family Foods, Mars Canada, McCain Foods Canada, PepsiCo Canada and Unilever Canada.