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The U.S. Is No Model on Marketing Food to Kids

03/10/2015 09:05 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT
Marc Romanelli via Getty Images

Recently Healthy Eating Research (HER), in the U.S., released a report on food marketing to kids, an issues brief with recommendations, and an infographic summarizing the report's main points. HER is influential. It's sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major source of funding for health research in the United States.

But its recommendations are disappointing. They've been slammed by health researchers, including Marion Nestle, the prominent commentator on the politics of food. The report does little except tweak the U.S. food industry's voluntary guidelines regarding marketing to children. That code is ineffective and can be easily evaded. And yet because the recommendations come from such a prestigious body supported by such an established foundation they risk being given weight that they should not have.

Children are critical to the industry because they constitute three sorts of markets. Kids are a "primary market" because they spend some money themselves. They are an "influence market" as they plead with parents to purchase various goodies. They are a "future market" in terms of them becoming adult consumers.

And, at the moment, Ontario may be looking at various recommendations in this area. The Healthy KidsStrategy contains a lot of good recommendations to promote healthy eating/drinking and physical exercise. It says that there have been consultations regarding "next steps" "...to restrict the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages aimed at kids" (The relevant experts' report had said there should be a ban.)

When it comes to dealing with advertising to children Ontario should not look south. It should look East. To Quebec. A ban on all advertising to children thirteen and under has been in effect in Quebec since 1980. The legislation was attacked as an infringement on free speech. That assault was unsuccessful.

The validity of the Act was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989.The legislation remains controversial.

But studies have demonstrated that it has had positive effects. Using a complicated but careful methodology one study was able to show that Francophone children eat significantly less junk food than do Anglophone children in Quebec. The difference between Francophone and Anglophone kids arises because the former watch Quebec television to which the ban applies and the latter watch television from other provinces and the United States where the ban does not apply.

A panel of experts, was convened by the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention. It published a paper in 2013 that among other matters reviewed the evidence of the impact of marketing on children; for example, until they are eight, kids can't distinguish between program content and commercials. The paper essentially urged the adoption of the Quebec model, at a national level, as applied to marketing of food and beverages to children.

There are many complications in addressing advertising to kids. As the Alberta group pointed out no one province can effectively address these issues. A national initiative is probably required; a goal not easily accomplished. Even then, thanks to ever increasing technology, television, particularly of the United States variety, and the Internet are found everywhere in our global village. That television programing and the Internet are full of commercials and promotions directed at kids who may be otherwise protected from such merchandising because of restrictions in their own country. International coordination and cooperation will be required.

But, as Marion Nestle says, "[f]ood marketing to kids is flat-out unethical and should stop." Ontario needs to play its part in prohibiting these bad practices. If it champions the Quebec model it's heading in the right direction. If it trumpets HER its folding its tent -- and leaving our kids to mostly fend for themselves.

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