Public Health

Stop Unhealthy Marketing to Children

The view from my office window overlooks Yonge-Dundas Square, and is filled with animated billboards and digital screens advertising everything from the latest movies to clothing, gum and food. Advertising is a feature of modern society that is so common we often don't think about it. And we rarely think about its impact on our health.


This past week, a national coalition advocating for restrictions on food and beverage marketing to children and youth was launched at the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada annual conference. The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition says the time has come to protect children and to support parents to make healthy decisions for their families.  The coalition has a point.


Advertisements targeted to children are filled with messages promoting unhealthy food and toys that don't encourage physical activity. Today's youth are exposed to more ads than any previous generation.  Not too long ago children's ads were confined to TV commercials. Today, kids are targeted through TV and movies, social media, games with embedded product ads, and many other ways. .


Marketers aim to reach children from the earliest age to shape their product preferences. They try to tap into kidfluence, a term marketers use to describe the influence that children have on parents' spending habits. It's estimated that 9-14 year olds in Canada influence $20 billion in household purchases every year.  The research is clear that advertising to kids works.


An in depth review by the U.S. Institute of Medicine found a positive link between food ads and children's preferences and, at least, short-term diet. And as much as 90% of the food marketed to children and youth is calorie dense and nutrient poor.


In Toronto, a recent survey of Grade 7-12 students showed that only 7% of students were meeting Canada's physical activity guidelines for youth. The 2014 Toronto Public Health Student Survey also showed that 29% of students in grades 7 to 12 were overweight or obese.

The dietary behaviours that kids establish at early ages carry on into adulthood. Improving these habits can help prevent childhood and adult obesity and the early onset of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  It is clear that action is needed in this area.


Parents can do a lot to support the health of their children but they should not have to compete with a well-funded professional corporate campaign. Limiting the amount of ads children and youth see is important but we also need to talk to children about what they're seeing and hearing to help them understand the tactics marketers use.


Introducing regulation on how food and beverages are marketed to children is a step in the right direction.  Think about any neighbourhood you drive through where there is an elementary school. Chances are there will be speed bumps, lower speed limits, higher fines and sometimes crossing guards. In an age where children are bombarded with unhealthy ads it's time to provide the same level of protection when it comes to marketing messages.


- David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health

Posted on February 29, 2016