A bill that would restrict food and beverage advertising aimed at kids is facing the possibility of a quiet death in the Senate after taking nearly three years to make its way through Parliament.
National health groups strongly support the bill, which was designed to foster healthier eating habits by reducing the influence on children of ads for products high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. But food and beverage manufacturers, farmers, broadcasters and others say the legislation could have negative effects on industries and might not help prevent childhood obesity.
Conservative senators and some independents are trying to block a final vote.
Former senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced Bill S-228 in the fall of 2016, and the Senate and the House of Commons have approved it with minor amendments. It must have a final vote in the Senate to become law, but that has not happened since the bill came back from the House in September, 2018.
The Senate is scheduled to sit until June 28. Any legislation that has not been approved by then will die, because Parliament is not expected to sit again before the election scheduled for Oct. 21.
Some Conservative and independent senators have proposed motions recently to have a Senate committee study the House amendments.
“I worry that it’s a delay tactic,” said Manuel Arango, director of policy, advocacy and engagement at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a leading member of the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, which has lobbied for the bill. “The food-industry lobby has been very active in influencing senators. This is our concern. The bill is very reasonable.”
The food, beverage, advertising, media and retail industries strongly criticized the proposed regulations, which Health Canada put to consultations in 2017. In submissions, industry representatives called the restrictions “unrealistic,” “punitive” and “commercially catastrophic.”
In response, Health Canada removed rules that would have prevented some food and beverage companies from sponsoring children’s sports and other groups, and agreed to apply the ban on ads only to TV programs for which children make up a certain percentage of the audience, rather than during broad swaths of the day when children might be watching. However, new proposed rules released in December defined that threshold as any program for which 15 per cent of the audience is under 13, and industry concerns remain.
“That would effectively prevent them from advertising to adults,” said Ron Lund, president and chief executive of the Association of Canadian Advertisers.
A main source of contention is that the restrictions would be based on products’ levels of salt, sugar and saturated fats. Some industry groups said this is not a reliable measure of overall nutrition, and might suggest nutritious foods such as milk and nut products are unhealthy. Health Canada says the word “unhealthy” would not appear in its regulations or in communications about the legislation.
However, the bill contains that wording. “This definition, which could see a considerable number of Canadian agri-food products potentially defined as ‘unhealthy,’ could also pose trade concerns for farmers looking to export into international markets,” Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said in a statement.
Because S-228 is a private member’s bill rather than government legislation, more procedural tactics are available for senators to stop it.
The full Senate voted twice last week and on Monday to reject motions in support of a committee study, but similar amendments can still be proposed. This would eat up time when the Chamber is under pressure to approve many other bills before the end of the month.
While a quick committee study and a final vote are possible before summer, the timeline suggests a committee study would effectively kill it.
Independent Senator Pamela Wallin moved an amendment to send the bill to committee early last week. It was the first time the bill had been discussed in the Senate since March. The motion was defeated 48-40, with Conservative senators and some independents voting with Ms. Wallin.
“I am concerned about the impact on the 65,000 grain producers we’ve got in this country, and the dairy producers, and the bakers and the baked goods industry,” she said in an interview last week.
Ms. Wallin also objected to ads the Heart and Stroke Foundation ran in the Regina Leader-Post, Wadena News and The Hill Times last Monday accusing her of blocking the bill and asking her to “be on the right side of history.”
Ms. Greene Raine rejected the idea that the new rules would harm sales or exports.
“The bill does not change what you can sell. It only says you cannot target children with marketing,” she said in an interview.
SUSAN KRASHINSKY ROBERTSON, MEDIA AND MARKETING REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, June 4, 2019