Senator Raine’s testimony on S-228 at H of C Health Committee

Good afternoon, Chair and committee members.

  Thank you for providing me this opportunity to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health to give you background on Bill S-228, the child health protection act, which prohibits the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children and youth under 17 years of age.
The genesis of this bill came from the study that the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology did on the rising rates of obesity in Canada. That study found that the rates of obesity have tripled in Canada since 1980 and that now one out of three children between the ages of five and 17 is either overweight or obese. We also learned that overweight children are much more likely to develop chronic diseases later in life.
 In late 2014, I attended a conference here in Ottawa on childhood obesity, where many nationally recognized health opinion leaders, experts, health professionals, and researchers from all across Canada came together to develop a consensus position on a set of definitions, the scope, and the principles meant to guide policy-making with regard to marketing to kids in Canada. Their position paper, “The Ottawa Principles”, outlines what was agreed on.
Anyone who’s informed on the issue of obesity knows that there are many causes. There’s no silver bullet. As our Senate committee study concluded, the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children has a negative impact on our most vulnerable age group. In our committee’s study we heard testimony from witnesses who, with the exception of the food and advertising industries, unanimously supported strict controls on the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages to children.
This testimony led the committee to recommend that the federal government design and implement a prohibition on the advertising of food and beverages to children, based on an assessment of Quebec’s prohibition of all advertising to children, which has been in place since the mid-1980s. Studies have found that Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates among six- to 11-year-olds in Canada, and one of the highest fruit and vegetable consumption rates.
 While the prohibition in Quebec has had success, it is limited to print and broadcast advertising. As the prohibitions came into effect, other forms of marketing, including labeling, point-of-purchase promotions, sponsorship event promotions, etc., all increased—not to mention, more recently, online promotions.
After we tabled our report, I realized that a Senate private member’s bill to prohibit the marketing of food and beverages to children, using the Food and Drugs Act, would be able to address the problem. I worked with the Senate legislative drafters and consulted broadly in drafting the bill. I decided that Bill S-228 should be entitled the “child health protection act”, as I’m convinced that our children’s health is being undermined by the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages intentionally directed at them. As drafting of the bill proceeded, I met with staff in Health Canada, the Minister of Health, and other ministers with interest in the file, including the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who’s responsible for controlling advertising on the public airwaves. They were very supportive, as were their staff.
Bill S-228, as originally introduced, prohibited the marketing of all food and beverages to children. I was thinking that nobody spends money advertising broccoli and carrots, so why not prohibit all advertising? After the legislation was introduced, I began to follow developments regarding marketing to children, as jurisdictions all over the world were dealing with the issue. In particular, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization made public their extensive work on how to define “unhealthy” specifically with regard to the marketing of food and beverages to children. Both organizations recommend restricting advertising these products to children.

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.

During the development of S-228 , I came to understand that amending the Food and Drugs Act is a long and arduous process, having worked on a few amendments to my own bill. I now realize that the legislation should include the general intent and framework, but the details are better left to be dealt with by regulations, which can more easily be changed to react to new ways of marketing.
I am confident that there are many stakeholder groups who will watch and ensure that the regulations to be developed following royal assent to Bill S-228 will live up to the bill’s intent and purpose.  Honourable members, I sincerely ask that you consider carefully the positive impact that Bill S-228 can have on the health of Canadian children.

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