S-228 3rd reading speech by Senator Raine

Hon. Nancy Greene Raine moved third reading of Bill S-228, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children), as amended.

She said: Honourable senators, today I open debate at third reading on Bill S-228 in its new, amended form. The bill now will prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children under the age of 17.

Bill S-228, the child health protection act, realizes that our children need protection from unfettered and pervasive marketing that is damaging to their health and that this is in the public interest.

We know the rates of the overweight and obese have been rising and that the number of obese children has tripled since 1980. Today in Canada almost one third of children and, more concerning, 62.5 per cent of young indigenous children are overweight or obese. Health experts warn that when you become obese at an early age, your risk of long-term chronic illnesses rises significantly.

Because we have a national health care system, it makes good sense to take preventative action. The rising costs of health care are simply not sustainable if we do not do everything possible to encourage Canadians to make healthy lifestyle choices, including eating a healthy diet.

Prohibiting advertising to children is not a new concept. In fact, the first law to prohibit broadcast advertising directed at children in Canada was introduced in 1974, but it died on the Order Paper. In 2010, a consensus statement was issued following a federal-provincial meeting of health ministers. It endorsed taking action on the protection of children from the marketing of foods and beverages high in fat, sugar and/or sodium.

Honourable senators, that was seven years ago. It is now time to act.

As I mentioned last week, my decision to put forward a private Senate bill using the Food and Drugs Act was triggered by the study on obesity that was published by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology as well as after listening to advocates and stakeholders come together in late 2014 to recommend this action. I will say, however, that much of my motivation comes from my personal observations and my own life experiences.

I grew up in a big family, in a small town in the mountains of British Columbia. We ate porridge for breakfast, along with a spoonful of cod liver oil. We ran home from school for lunch — a bowl of soup and bread, or a sandwich, and maybe half an apple. Then we ran back to school. It seems like we were always running. Recess, lunch hour and physical education were a regular part of the school day, and everyone played actively. After school, we would have a quick snack and a chat with mom, then outside to play. If you stayed inside, mom always had chores for you. We came home for dinner when the whistle blew. Our stomachs had already alerted us that it was time to head home.

We ate what was served, and if you didn’t like it, you could speak up, but there were no substitutions, and sometimes no dessert if you didn’t finish your plate. I’m pretty sure our family’s routine was no different than others, so it is no wonder that there were very few overweight school kids back then.

Also, in those days there were no computers, iPads or smartphones. Many homes did not even have a TV, so we didn’t see any ads. Food was simpler and mostly cooked at home, often from our own gardens, and preserved by canning at home. That’s just the way it was then; there was no choice.

Today, processed foods, especially snack foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat, have been formulated to target the bliss point, that is, to be addictive. These foods are mass produced, and so they are relatively inexpensive, and they are certainly convenient.

Today, the influences on children come from all directions. Now, as children watch TV, they are not just bombarded with advertisements, they also see product placements where companies pay to have their products and logos appear as part of the program itself. In 2002, one soft drink company paid millions to have a glass of their product placed in front of each judge on the “American Idol” TV show.

The pervasive marketing is not just on television. Unhealthy food is packaged to appeal to children. Lunchables, for instance, makes the homemade lunch less appealing to kids. Fast food and junk food mascots show up at kids’ festivals and sports events.

And we all know that children are spending more time with screens where they constantly come into contact with marketing techniques that include games that blur the boundaries between entertainment and advertising content.

Parents are doing their best. If it’s affordable, they put their kids into organized sports and arts programs, and they arrange play dates or daycare. However, 56 per cent of Canadian kids are not getting the minimum amount of exercise required for health. It is ironic: School boards took out physical education and cooking classes to put in computers.

I know we can’t go back to the good old days, and that no one really wants to. However, we do need to do a reality check and see what can be done to reverse the trend towards unhealthy lifestyle habits. We need to figure out how to use technology for the good. It will not be easy; screen time is very addictive.

Our Senate study showed that there are many causes for obesity, and that many solutions will need to be found.

In spite of what some industry and media people might want you to believe, there is an international consensus among health stakeholders that the pervasive marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat has a negative impact on health, and that when it is directed at children, that impact can be devastating. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on this kind of marketing. To understand why, it is obvious: It works. They wouldn’t spend this money if it didn’t work.

As this bill worked its way through the Senate, I had many opportunities to discuss it with Canadians from all walks of life. Some people argue that it is the parents’ job to determine what their children eat, and that we should not become a nanny state. I agree with them. However, since we already have publicly funded health care, it behooves us to do everything possible to promote active, healthy living.

Society will pay in the long run if parents are unable to resist their children’s pestering for unhealthy foods, but it is our vulnerable children and youth who will suffer the impacts of ill health. We owe it to them and to the sustainability of our health care system to protect them from being targets of ads for unhealthy food that is designed to be addictive.

Honourable senators, I realize that private corporations operate on a business plan that rewards them when they invest in successful marketing campaigns that increase their market share and drive value to their bottom line. Nowhere does it say that what they produce has to be healthy. Of course, it cannot be poisonous, but tasty snack food and sugar-sweetened beverages do not kill you, at least in the short term.

Honourable senators, when I talk about the legislation to young parents, they unanimously say how great it would be to have less commercialization around their kids. Parents are under a lot of pressure these days, and the last thing they need is to be pestered by their kids to buy products that the parents know aren’t good for them. Parents should be the last line of defence, not the only line of defence, against the pressures of omnipresent marketing that follows their kids everywhere.

I know this legislation is supported by a large majority of Canadians. Bill S-228 will not prohibit the sale of unhealthy food and beverages, but it will prevent them being marketed to kids. Leave the decision making up to the parents, but give them a chance.

Teenagers with their own buying power are also vulnerable, in some ways more vulnerable than young children, who at least have the filter of their parents.

Honourable senators, I look forward to moving Bill S-228 towards a vote in the Senate, and then to seeing it pass in the House of Commons and become law. As I’ve always said, it is only one part of the solution to the rising rates of obesity, but it is a very important first step.

Hon. Pamela Wallin: I would like a clarification. Senator Raine, you talked about marketing directed at children under 13, and then I thought I heard you say 17. Which is it?

Senator Raine: Thank you very much, Senator Wallin. During the committee hearings last June, we heard testimony that pointed out the latest research that’s been done on marketing towards adolescents, and there is strong evidence that there’s a period in the teen years when they are very susceptible to marketing. We probably all remember, as teenagers, wanting to do what your parents didn’t want you to do. There’s a vulnerability that comes along in the teen years, and this is a period when I believe we need to protect our youth.

I can think, for instance, of highly caffeinated beverages targeted at teenagers, and of course sports drinks are also targeting teenagers. There was a piece in the news just yesterday about that.

That is why the bill was amended in committee and is now being proposed to be amended to include marketing to children under the age of 17.

Hon. Peter Harder (Government Representative in the Senate): Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on behalf of the government in support of Bill S-228, and urge its passage so that it can go to the other place and hopefully be adopted as soon as possible.

[Translation]

This bill is an important initiative to help ensure our children grow up healthy.

[English]

I want to thank the Honourable Senator Nancy Greene Raine for introducing this bill in the Senate just over a year ago, on September 27, 2016.

As a role model and a senator, her passion to help children be active and eat healthy food is inspiring. Her recollection just now of her regime as a young child growing up displays more enthusiasm for porridge than I experienced.

I also want to thank the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for their significant efforts in improving this important bill, and also its groundbreaking report on obesity in Canada, which informed the debate on this bill as well.

In studying Bill S-228 this past spring, the committee heard from many different stakeholders, including Canada’s food and beverage industries, advertising industries, health experts and advocates, and officials from Health Canada. Each brought their own perspective and views, and confirmed the importance of the senator’s bill.

Modern marketing techniques are very sophisticated and have a strong influence on our children’s food choices.

[Translation]

We all know that eating a healthy, balanced diet is vital for good health.

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[English]

Through Health Canada, the Government of Canada promotes greater awareness among Canadians about nutrition and good eating habits. But these public efforts are increasingly challenged by messaging that emphasizes convenience over nutrition.

We are being inundated by persuasive marketing campaigns that promote highly processed and low nutrition foods as a fast, fun and easy choice.

Fast-paced lifestyles also leave many Canadians with little time to evaluate and compare packaging labels, serving sizes or calculate their daily consumption of key nutrients. As a result, processed foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar have become a standard, rather than occasional, part of the Canadian diet.

And this convenience comes at an alarming cost to the individuals and to the public.

[Translation]

We are seeing some disturbing trends with respect to the health of Canadians and their poor food choices.

[English]

Over the past 30 years, we have seen a rise in all types of chronic diseases, like diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease, all related to nutrition. These diseases threaten the lives of millions of Canadians, particularly the targeted young Canadians.

Research clearly shows that obesity and poor diet are two of the major contributors to these health conditions. It is estimated that one in four Canadian adults is obese, and they learn that as youth.

[Translation]

Even more disturbing, these trends also exist among children.

[English]

Since 1980, obesity rates among children and youth in Canada have tripled. Today more than 1 in 3 Canadian children aged 6 to 17 are overweight or obese. That’s 1 in 3. As a result, children are now at an increased risk for developing high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, premature heart disease and stroke later in life.

Last year, the Minister of Health — the former minister — announced a new healthy eating strategy that supports healthier choices by simplifying package labelling, targeting the salt, fat and sugar content in foods, and it modernizes the food guide.

The Minister of Health has also committed to introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children.

As brought to light in the Senate’s report on Obesity in Canada, unhealthy eating patterns are common among Canadian children today and powerful marketing tactics have shaped their food preferences.

These marketing tactics are not limited to what we conventionally think of as advertising, such as television and print ads. Today our kids are targeted in multiple ways, in multiple settings, on multiple platforms. Here are some examples: fast food companies that use popular characters from TV and movies on their disposable cups, which usually contain sugary drinks; commercial content embedded in popular websites for children; or, pop-up ads that are targeted at individual children based on their personal information posted or collected online.

Experts who appeared before the committee confirmed that this type of marketing normalizes poor food choices in everyday life.

This type of marketing also undermines the efforts of parents and health advocates to promote healthier options.

Our Senate committee amended Bill S-228 and made it stronger by broadening the definition of children to include youth under 17 years of age. This means the law, should it be enacted, will also protect older youth and teens, a population, as the senator has indicated, that has become a frequent target of new advertising techniques.

As well, amendments limit the bill’s scope to “unhealthy” food — those foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar — while still allowing the child-directed promotion of healthy foods.

The amended bill also gives the Governor-in-Council the authority to make regulations to carry out the new provisions in the Food and Drugs Act.

I am happy to report to you that through its work on the healthy eating strategy, Health Canada has already begun laying the groundwork for this regulatory scheme.

Health Canada is building a strong evidence-based approach to structure the coming into force of this bill should it be passed. Further, Health Canada launched an online consultation last June to ask Canadians, industry and health stakeholders what they think about some of these key issues. Honest, thoughtful and thorough feedback from Canadians will continue to be a helpful and important part of determining the precise regulatory approach that will be adopted.

This is a complex problem that affects a group of people who need our protection.

It’s important that we get it right so that our children have every chance to grow up healthy. The road ahead won’t necessarily be easy or without a difference of views. That being said, the new act and its regulations will be phased in to give industry an appropriate amount of time to adjust to the requirements of this act.

Undoubtedly, there are complex and challenging questions that still need to be answered as the regulations are developed. But Senator Greene Raine’s bill lays the groundwork for real change so that we have a healthier and more outward-oriented and active population of children, and greater protection for adults and particularly children as they become adults because of the conditions we know that unhealthy eating leads to.

I urge the bill’s passage as quickly as possible, again, so the other house can act on this matter.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

(On motion of Senator Patterson, debate adjourned.)