Good afternoon, Chair and committee members.
Dr. Mary L’Abbé, chair of the department of nutritional sciences in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, leads a research group on food and nutrition policy for population health. She was invaluable in outlining how these agencies arrived at definitions that are now becoming best practices in countries tackling the issue of childhood obesity. I also realized that legislation that limited the advertising prohibition to food defined as “unhealthy”, yet allowed marketing of healthy food, would be more difficult for the food and beverage industry to challenge in court. For this reason, Bill S-228 was amended at clause-by-clause study in the Senate to limit the prohibition on advertising to children to the advertising of food that had been determined to be unhealthy. This change was accompanied by an amendment to the preamble to acknowledge the existing evidence-based nutrient profiling models that would serve as a base for classifying food or beverages as unhealthy.
I met with the Minister of Health, Minister Philpott at the time, and her officials. The minister was supportive of the proposed amendments to limit the prohibition to “unhealthy” foods and gave me assurance that Health Canada would put in place a definition of “unhealthy” that takes into account the latest science and international models.
Honourable committee members, Bill S-228, as originally tabled, prohibited the marketing of food and beverages to children under 13 years of age. As the bill progressed through the Senate, I had further discussions with some stakeholders who convinced me that new research confirmed that the way adolescents process advertising is also very problematic.
Marketing specialists today understand that adolescents can be targeted with messages that play on specific emotions. Honourable members, I’m sure most of us remember from our teen years that a large number of adolescents reject guidance from their parents and are influenced very strongly by their peers, who determine what is cool. When this age group is targeted by marketers, its members are also vulnerable to developing habits that are likely to last a lifetime. A predilection as teenagers to choose foods high in salt, sugar, and fat can result in poor food choices for the rest of their lives, and it’s recognized as one of the precursors to becoming overweight and obese, which leads to all kinds of chronic diseases.
In the spring of 2017, Australian media obtained confidential emails of Facebook managers that explained how Facebook can use its technology to identify moments when young people need a confidence boost and then tailor commercials toward them. By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions, and Internet activity in real time, an advertising-driven site can now determine when its individual users, some as young as 14, feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, etc. The Facebook algorithms are capable of target-marketing to individual teenage users when they are most susceptible to a particular marketing message. I was not surprised at the recent testimony by Mark Zuckerberg in the U.S. Congress, but it made me even more convinced that social media companies that earn their revenue through ad sales have a lot more power to influence than most people realize.
The amount of targeted advertising of unhealthy food products to kids in Canada, including all forms of commercial marketing, has greatly increased over the years. This has happened for the simple reason that the experts who design these marketing campaigns know full well that they work.
By the time my bill got through committee hearings in the Senate, I also realized that some clauses in the bill would be better dealt with in the regulations that would be developed by Health Canada following the passage of the legislation.
My original intent was to ensure that the bill would go beyond traditional print, broadcast, and electronic advertising to include social media on the Internet. Today there are many, many ways to influence children to choose unhealthy food and beverages, and these include sponsorships, testimonials, and product giveaways. The tools used to develop successful marketing campaigns are not only very creative; they also include the latest technology to become more and more effective.
The goal of the bill, child health protection through prohibiting the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, has not changed. I hope any amendments you make will make it even better.
Thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer any questions you have for me.
The full transcript of the meeting can be found at: https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/HESA/meeting-100/evidence