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Impending food advertising changes: Health Canada reviews marketing to children

April 13, 2017

This article originally appeared in Food in Canada and is republished with the permission of the publisher.

A radical shift in the way food is permitted to be marketed to children is currently in the works in Canada. In a news release published on Oct. 24, 2016, Minister of Health Jane Philpott announced that Health Canada intends to use “every tool at its disposal — legislation, regulation, guidance and education” to achieve its multi-year Healthy Eating Strategy, which includes commitments related to marketing to children.

This change is by no means without warning. In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Minister Philpott, he specifically identified that a top priority was to introduce new restrictions on the commercial market­ing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec.

What this means to consumers and industry is still unclear. The publication of the news release also marked the launch of Health Canada’s consultations with Canadians, which closed on Dec. 8, 2016. These consultations were aimed at getting input and feedback from the public and stakeholders on a proposed approach before new restrictions are implemented.

The marketing of food to children is so ubiquitous that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone — from a baby boomer to a millennial — who is unable to recall a jingle, cartoon character, or promotional toy-with-purchase associ­ated with their favourite childhood treat. But what may be nostalgia for some has translated into big business for others.

Health Canada indicates six out of 10 adults are overweight and one-third of youth are overweight or obese. Indeed, the annual economic burden of obesity in Canada is estimated in the billions of dollars. Clearly, Health Canada aims to nip these bad eating habits in the bud, by restricting marketers’ access to younger audiences, potentially preventing them from developing the poor eating habits of their parents’ generation.

Although the exact nature of the proposed amendments is still unclear, we know that Quebec was cited as being a guiding example of what is envisioned for these federal changes. Currently in Quebec, commercial advertising of prod­ucts or services to children under the age of 13 is prohibited by the provincial Consumer Protection Act. The specific rules applicable to children’s advertising in Quebec are complex, but there are certain prescribed forms of advertising to children that are permitted, such as store windows, displays, containers, wrappings, or labels, provided certain rules are followed.

Muddying the waters further is Private Member’s Bill S-228, “An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (pro­hibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children),” tabled by Senator Nancy Greene Raine in September. This proposed bill goes even further than the Quebec legislation and includes pro­hibitions on labelling and packaging. Additionally, this proposed legislation would prevent the promotion of food by means of a testimonial or an endorsement in a manner that is directed primarily at children, and the depiction of a person, character or animal, whether real or fic­tional, would be considered to be such a testimonial or an endorsement. Moreover, no person would be allowed to provide, in exchange for the purchase of a food, any direct or indirect consideration that is intended primarily for children under these proposed laws. Health Canada has indicated that it is reviewing Bill S-228 to determine how it lines up with the government’s approach to this issue.

Where exactly the new legislation will land is still up in the air. We expect more information to become available regarding these regulatory changes once Health Canada completes its compilation of the comments received during the consulta­tion period. In the meantime, we would recommend holding onto all kids’ meals toys from future fast-food chain visits, as those may one day be relics of the past.


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