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How to fight obesity? Ban food and drink ads targeted at teens, experts say

Elevated View of a Tray With Fries, a Hamburger and Lemonade

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Forget a ban on junk food advertising.

To help combat rising obesity rates among children and adolescents, a group of Canadian researchers is proposing a ban on any food and beverage advertising aimed at those under 18.

The University of Alberta Researchers recently published the recommendations in the Journal of Public Health Policy. Calls for clamp-downs on marketing food to children have grown in recent years in response to the rising number of overweight and obese children in Canada. Last September, Statistics Canada reported that 31 per cent of young people between five and 17 are overweight or obese.

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But do these types of prohibitions actually work?

The University of Alberta researchers published their recommendations, which were developed with the help of leading obesity experts at a conference in 2011. They state that numerous studies have shown a link between marketing of unhealthy food and obesity. They also note that research shows marketing and advertising can have an effect on what types of food a child prefers.

In turn, they advocate for the end of any food and beverage advertising aimed at minors in Canada. The reduced exposure to ads for unhealthy foods isn't the only solution, but the researchers say they believe it will help make healthy choices easier.

Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president of Food and Consumer Products of Canada, which represents food manufacturers, argues that these types of bans are too unwieldy and difficult to enforce. For instance, would the ban require any food or beverage advertisements to be banned from Hockey Night in Canada, which is watched by adults and teens alike?

"Advertising is one component of a whole broad number of issues that affect childhood obesity, which is a complex problem," Nighbor said.

It is challenging for health experts to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of food-related advertising bans. Weight is a complicated issue, and trends in childhood obesity are affected by much more than a commercial for a sugary cereal or high fat snack. But in Quebec — where commercial advertising to children under 13 is banned — consumption of snack food and pop is the lowest in Canada, while the province's overall consumption of fruits and vegetables is the country's highest, according to the new report.

Although the authors note this isn't entirely the result of the advertising ban, they say it likely did play a role.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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