It’s not the Ads, Brainiac: Why TV doesn’t lead to obesity (or good-bye Snap, Crackle and Pop)

It’s not the Ads, Brainiac: Why TV doesn’t lead to obesity (or good-bye Snap, Crackle and Pop)

By Richard Tardif

Author Alice Park, a writer covering health, medicine, nutrition and fitness for TIME, gets all the credit for such a headline in 2011, and it’s fitting in 2017, given that the Canadian government is moving to ban sugary food TV advertising to children, and levy a tax on our soda pop. Park, headlining her story, It’s the Ads, stupid: Why TV leads to obesity was reporting on an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement slamming junk food and soda TV advertisements as a factor in childhood obesity.

The obvious premise then is to ban, or cut back on these commercials – well, duh, said a 2012 review of the Quebec’s 1980 legislation banning kidvertising for toys and fast food targeting children under 13, specifically during Saturday morning cartoons, and after school hours. Snap, Crackle and Pop, Count Chocula, Boo Berry, and Waldo The Wizard of Lucky Charms, and all those memorable cereal box characters, and the somehow always buffed Tony The Tiger too, packed up and found airtime in the rest of Canada, but in Quebec, bien non! Amazingly, the review suggested that kids in Quebec consumed 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories over three decades.

Now it’s Canada’s turn. A Senate bill, S-228, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children), which passed its first reading in September 2016, would ban food and soft drink marketing that targets kids under age 13, as it is in Quebec. The goal, or course, of such a population-level intervention, is to reduce sugary junk food consumption with the goal of reducing obesity rates in Canada. Let’s be clear: no one can measure a nation’s obesity, but we can analyze rates.

“Since 1980, the number of obese children in Canada has tripled,” writes Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine, former Olympic skier, who introduced the Bill in 2016. “These children face an increased risk of premature onset of many chronic conditions and illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,” she reported in the House.

Senator Nancy Greene Raine

Greene Raine was quoting from a 2016 study by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology examining the increasing incidence of obesity in Canada. Experts testified that the number of obese children in Canada has tripled since 1980 and that Canada ranks sixth among industrialized nations in respect of its percentage of children who are obese.

The proposed ban extends to those plastic toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals (don’t feel singled out McDonalds) and other brand fast-food chains, as well as games, and fun surprises we loved to dig for in our cereal boxes. It’s a perfect segway, if the Bill is passed, to tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats and to reduce salt in processed foods, and to improve food labels by giving more information on added sugars and artificial dyes in processed foods, a task handed to Health Minister Jane Philpott’s 2015 mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But will it work, as it apparently has in Quebec?  Unlikely. In 2009, Le Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux released a review based on available data from 2004, suggesting that Quebec children who are overweight (not obese) increased by 55 percent over 25 years, from 14.6 in 1978 to 22.6 in 2004. Quebec fared better than the rest of Canada, but not with any significance.

It’s also a different time. American TV. Internet. Ads on cell phones. Soda machines in schools. Junk food sponsorships of Olympic events. Sponsorships of local events (Though Clause 4 of Bill S-228 offers new provisions that will define the marketing that will not be allowed, for instance, with regard to sponsorship of events or activities primarily for children, or the sponsorship of places such as a school or day care). You’re going to have to ban everything and everyone.

Can’t be too upset with governments trying to deal with obesity rates. The World Health Organization in 2010 labeled childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. According to WHO, in 2010 there were an estimated 42 million children under five years old considered overweight.

WHO then Commissioned a study on Ending Childhood Obesity, which it released in January of 2016, stating, “there is unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages has a negative impact on childhood obesity, and recommended that any attempt to tackle childhood obesity should include a reduction in the exposure of children to marketing”.

Canada is also considering including a tax on sugary drinks. Once again, that won’t work.

Mexico in 2013 implemented a tax of one peso per liter on sweetened beverages to battle its climbing obesity rates. In the first year, the purchases of taxed beverages decreased by 12 percent cent, with bottled water purchases up by four percent. The average BMI in Mexico is still increasing, and in fairness, it is at a slower rate. Are Mexicans compensating by eating other sugary foods? What about physical activity? How does poverty impact the purchase of sugary drinks? One review even suggested that a 20 percent tax would be the ticket.

No one questions childhood weight gain. It is a serious issue and complex. Greene Raine is right to be alarmed with rates of obesity tripling from 1981 to 2013, but it’s a disservice to tell anyone that banning kidvertising or spiking sodas with a sugar tax is the path to reducing obesity rates in children.

Here again, it won’t work. The government already has its own telling numbers. Canadian children are not physically active at home, inside school gyms, or even during recess, if indeed recess exists in some schools.

Here’s why it won’t work. A government supported study titled 2016 The ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, reported that Canadian children spend 7.5 hours a day in front of screens. On average, adults are sedentary for ten waking hours per day. The report card revealed we don’t help ourselves because we eat junk, while we are sedentary, to the equivalent of 26 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

When Greene Raine stood up in Parliament in October of 2016, she was correct when she said, “We do not need to do more studies.” That’s because all we do is write about it, study it, approve or disprove it, and then write about it some more. “It is by no means the only step, but it is an important first step,” she said. As we mentioned above, this means banning everything, everywhere, as is happening in the United Kingdom.

Junk food advertising to children under 16 will be banned by July 2017 across all children’s media considered non-broadcast media. This was the UK’s response to a shift in the way children use media. Young people aged between five and 15 spend more than 15 hours a week online, more time than they spend watching television. Restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 2007. The new rules will extent to TV-like content online, such as on video-sharing platforms or ‘advergames’, and at Cinemas and in print, if they are directed at or likely to appeal particularly to children.

Now let’s get them moving?

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