It is frequently observed that children are especially impacted by advertising, and special attention must be paid when marketing to them. Historically, with the exception of Quebec, which has prohibited virtually all forms of commercial advertising directed at children under the age of 13 since 1980, Canada did not specifically restrict advertising targeted at children. However, driven by growing concerns due to increases in obesity and chronic diseases, plans have now emerged to tackle these issues, including three recent developments enacted by the food and beverage industry, the federal Parliament, and Health Canada, respectively. While each of these developments aims to curb food and beverage advertising to children, how these initiatives will work together and how effective they will be remain to be seen.
In the meantime, as the regulation of advertising directed at children takes centre stage, it will be important for businesses to consider their advertising practices in Canada if they manufacture or distribute foods high in sodium, sugars, and/or saturated fats and seek to advertise them in specific media such as television and digital platforms. For now, it appears that advertising directed at children in on-premises communications will continue to be comparatively unregulated.
Although recent developments suggest advertising directed at children has only lately become a priority, the topic has been a focus of policy attention for over a decade. For example, in 2007, leading food and beverage companies launched the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI), a voluntary program establishing principles for food and beverage advertising directed to children. The CAI adopted uniform nutrition criteria in 2016, resulting in many participants reformulating their products or changing the focus of their advertising.
Despite these industry efforts, Health Canada has expressed the view that self-regulatory approaches may not be effective in meaningfully reducing children’s exposure to food and beverage advertisements. As a result, in 2016, the federal Minister of Health launched the Healthy Eating Strategy, a key component of which was to restrict food and beverage advertising to children. The same year, the Minister introduced Bill S-228, an Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, which aimed to prohibit food and beverage marketing directed at children in the belief that these advertisements contribute to child obesity in Canada.
Bill S-228 faced significant pushback on the basis that there was no evidence that exposure to specific types of food advertising contributes to obesity in children, and ultimately failed to be adopted in 2019 prior to the 2019 Canadian federal election.
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