DOUG ROTH and ANDREA SEALE
Building a “cleaner and healthier future for all of our kids” was a clear priority stated in the recent Speech from the Throne. Appropriately, these words were spoken by Governor General Mary Simon just a few days after World Children’s Day, an annual observation set by the United Nations to mark the approval on that date in 1959 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A key principle of the declaration is that in government policy and laws, “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Fortunately in Canada, most children don’t face the worst of what the Declaration intends to prevent, such as enforced labour and the threat of becoming a child soldier. But that doesn’t mean we should not keep working to ensure better lives and better futures for Canada’s young people.
It’s a great opportunity for the federal government to protect Canada’s kids.
There are three important policy steps the newly re-elected federal government can and should take promptly that would have a large positive impact on the health of Canada’s children. These actions would help parents, caregivers and young people choose more nutritious food and protect them from the harmful effects of vaping.
Front-of-package nutrition labelling: This would require simple, clear messaging on the front of food packages so consumers will know quickly whether an item is high in sugar, sodium (salt) and/or saturated fat. This will help parents make healthier choices for their kids and families. This proposed front-of-package labelling by Health Canada would be a more practical and valuable tool for rushed shoppers, as well as those with low literacy skills than the current, difficult to understand nutrition facts table on the backs or even bottoms of current packages.
A further benefit of such a policy would be the incentive it would create for manufacturers to reformulate products with less saturated fat, sodium or sugar so they avoid the “high in” label.
The federal government has publicly committed to this policy and published draft regulations for this in 2018, but the policy has languished without the process being completed. There’s no reason why the policy should not receive final approval — quickly.
Limitations on marketing to kids: Children are bombarded with television and online advertising that urges them to consume ultra-processed foods that are less healthy for them. This consumption, which has been compounded by the pandemic, could have a negative health impact which will be felt for years to come.
Quebec has not permitted such advertising to children under 13 for decades and data show lower consumption rates of ultra-processed foods and lower obesity rates.
Limiting such marketing to children across Canada was approved by the House of Commons but did not get final approval in the Senate before the 2019 election was called. The government should move quickly to reintroduce this vital federal commitment.
Protections against vaping: Vapes or e-cigarettes can be harmful to the health of kids and youth and consequently have become a serious concern for parents across Canada. According to a Health Canada national survey in 2019, among grade 10-12 students, e-cigarette use within the past 30 days was almost three in 10 (29.4 per cent) and 90 per cent said they had used products containing nicotine. Use rates had doubled from just two years earlier.
To lessen these worrying trends, the federal government needs to finalize regulations restricting flavours in e-cigarettes, and to implement an e-cigarette tax. This is important because we know that vape flavours and low prices help to addict kids and youth.
Canadians overwhelmingly support taking these three policy measures as quickly as possible to help consumers and protect our young people. A December 2020 poll, commissioned by Heart & Stroke, showed 80 per cent of Canadians support the idea of the government acting quickly to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods to children and to require front-of-package nutrition labelling. A March 2020 poll showed almost nine out of 10 Canadians (89 per cent) said the government should act quickly to protect youth from vaping.
Taking these three important policy steps forward in the coming months of the 44th Parliament would be a tremendous positive legacy from the COVID-19 era for the future health and well-being of Canadian children. Having all in place by the time of next year’s World Children’s Day would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.