Canadians write to NYT on food marketing

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27/09/2012
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The New York Times recently published an article that claimed to prove that the thirty year old ban on advertising to children in Quebec has worked. In response, Bob Reaume of the Association of Canadian Advertisers wrote to the Times to correct misconceptions in the article. His response can be found below:

To the Editor, New York Times
July 16th, 2012

Catherine Musemeche's article in your online edition of Motherlode July 13 (Ban on Advertising to Children Linked to Lower Obesity Rates) calls out for a response. Dr. Musemeche states that she has little doubt “%u2026that child-directed advertising is fueling the obesity epidemic,” and points to a University of British Columbia study on the 32-year old child-directed ad ban in Canada's province of Quebec as proof.

For starters, it is hard to believe that the authors of this study (being from British Columbia) did not know that the lowest childhood obesity rate in Canada is not in Quebec but in their own home province of British Columbia. According to Statistics Canada's 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (the most widely-used source and quoted in the research paper) Quebec's childhood obesity rate is 7.1%, whereas British Columbia's is 6.6%. If it is not plain enough, allow me to point out that this means that British Columbia, where there has never been a child-directed advertising ban, has a lower rate of childhood obesity than in the province of Quebec which has had a ban on such advertising for 32 years. To be fair, the authors of the study actually say that “%u2026Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada,” something Dr. Musemeche must have missed.

If we look at overweight and obesity combined, Quebec's rate is at 22.6%, but the province of Alberta is at 21.8 % -- a lower rate despite, according to the University of Alberta, being the world's second most food and beverage ad-saturated jurisdiction in the world, and where child-directed advertising has also never been banned. In fact, since the ban has gone into effect in Quebec, childhood obesity and overweight levels there have doubled from 11.5% to 22.6%. Doubled? During a more than three decade total ban on all child-directed advertising, including the presumed offending foods and beverages? Might this not suggest at least a little doubt “%u2026that child-directed advertising is fueling the obesity epidemic?”

And then there is the study itself. The authors compare fast food advertising and consumption in Quebec and Ontario, (not sure why British Columbia or Alberta weren't chosen, but I'm working on a theory), while controlling for English and French language and the presence of children in the household. Their conclusion is that the ban would have reduced net calorie consumption by French-speaking Quebecers by somewhere between 1.4 billion (urban areas only) and 3.4 billion (total province). In the authors' minds this is proof that banning child-directed advertising can reduce childhood obesity.

But let's take a closer look at the numbers. For the benefit of your readers, Quebec is one of the larger provinces in our country with a population today of over 8 million people. In the period studied from 1984 to 1992, this huge-sounding 1.4 to 3.4 billion net caloric reduction would have represented approximately between 1400 and 600 less calories consumed per French-speaking person in Quebec, per year. If we extrapolate this reduced caloric consumption to French-speaking children (and remember, according to the study, directly attributable to the child-directed advertising ban), it amounts to somewhere around a half to one and a half fewer calories per child per day. Less than a single French-fry.

I am not an exercise or diet expert, but a quick internet search plus some simple arithmetic leads me to conclude that it would take about a 30 second walk to burn off a french-fry. Although I'll give you that it might be as high as 60 seconds.

What is missing in this debate and urgently needed is some sense of balance and proportionality. Food and beverage advertising has an effect on childhood obesity, of course it does, but it is a modest – some would say marginal -- effect at most. The Foresight Report to the UK government in 2007 identified 'Exposure to Food Advertising' as an obesity influencer, but there were 107 other influencers.

Moreover, the food and beverage industry has acted responsibly and stepped up to be part of the solution by creating many improved products and menu choices as well as instituting the 'Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative' which emphasizes healthier-for-you products in child-directed advertising based on sound nutritional guidelines.

But banning advertising? Really? In North America in the 21st century?

We quite naturally teach our children how to safely cross the road – we don't ban ads for cars. And banning ads for sofas won't get more people off the couch and outside walking. We cannot afford to think that we can build a fence around the ocean to keep our children safe; we must teach them to swim.

I am certainly not advocating downplaying the urgency of this important public health issue, but industry has stepped up, we are part of the solution, and we are very proud of our efforts.

Sincerely,
Bob Reaume
Vice President, Policy & Research
Association of Canadian Advertisers


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