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When It Comes To Ads And Obesity, Our Kids Are Our Responsibility

It seems (Health Canada's) 'consultation' is nothing more than a rubber stamp for public measures to protect us from ourselves.

07/31/2017 15:06 EDT | Updated 08/03/2017 12:39 EDT

Health Canada is in the midst of consulting on whether to restrict food advertising to children under 17. I'm not certain how many Canadians have taken the time to complete the online consultation, so let me give you a sense of how the issue is being presented:

"Question X: Sugar, fat and salt are hurting your kids. The only way to save them is to restrict advertising of products with sugar, fat and salt. Do you want to protect your kids?"

...it's far from clear that we actually have a problem, let alone that its underlying causes are as simple as putting cartoon animals on a box of cereal.

OK, this is a slight exaggeration, but suffice it to say that there is no real effort to present a balanced perspective (pros and cons) on whether changes to product packaging, displays or other forms of advertising will make our kids healthier. There's no estimate of what it will cost businesses, how it will affect the cost of household items, or whether the causes of obesity are really one dimensional as presented.

It seems this 'consultation' is nothing more than a rubber stamp for public measures to protect us from ourselves. The government has already diagnosed the problem. What we're really being asked is how we'd like to take our medicine.

But it's far from clear that we actually have a problem, let alone that its underlying causes are as simple as putting cartoon animals on a box of cereal.

The question is not whether our kids are at risk of being overweight. The real question is whether putting limits on food advertising is the right answer.

It might interest you to know that our children are less likely to be overweight today than they were yesterday. In fact, a major study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2016, revealed that the number of Canadian children aged 3-19 qualifying as obese and overweight actually went down from 31 per cent to 27 per cent between 2004 and 2013.

That's not to say that Canadians don't struggle with their waistlines. I have struggled with weight issues all my life. Now, as the father of an active 5-year-old, I worry less about what she picks up through TV, and more about what she picks up from her old man's eating habits. The question is not whether our kids are at risk of being overweight. The real question is whether putting limits on food advertising is the right answer.

An Angus Reid poll released in 2016 suggests at least one alternative. It revealed that 57 per cent of Canadians think it's getting harder and harder to feed their families, and that many are cutting back on meat (61 per cent) and fruits and vegetables (42 per cent) as a result of higher food prices. The oldest of human motivations still seems among the most powerful. Make healthy food cheaper, and people will buy it.

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Doctors and researchers agree that a sedentary lifestyle is at least a contributing factor for obesity in children, while another study found that less than eight per cent of boys and three per cent of girls between from 12-17 are actually meeting government guidelines for physical activity.

That's one of the reasons why the Canadian Convenience Stores Association is a strong proponent of tax incentives to help small convenience retailers carry healthy food alternatives. Often these alternatives, like fruits and vegetables, require costly refrigeration equipment, and this prevents smaller convenience retailers from carrying them. This solution would also go a long way towards addressing food 'deserts' in parts of our vast country.

Oh, let's not forgot about the problem of being a couch potato. Doctors and researchers agree that a sedentary lifestyle is at least a contributing factor for obesity in children, while another study found that less than eight per cent of boys and three per cent of girls between from 12-17 are actually meeting government guidelines for physical activity.

Now before Health Canada launches its next consultation on banning all iPads, smartphones, and TVs for anyone under 17, let's take a minute to ask ourselves how much ownership we are willing to take for our own behaviour, and for the choices our children make.

Before we rush for overly simplistic solutions, I hope this consultation will convince Health Canada that there is no one-size-fits all approach to the multi-faceted problem of overweight children in Canada. In the meantime, as parents, we should take a bit more responsibility for our own children. Let's be a bit more firm in what or how much we allow them to eat, and the time we allow them to spend on their iPads. And let's be a little more easy-going when they say they're going to the park to play.

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