Ontario slow to address meager recommendations in healthy kids strategy

Last March the Healthy Kids Panel made a series of recommendations around tackling child obesity including investing $80 million per year in new funding.

That’s only $5.87 per person to tackle a problem that is said to cost Ontarians $4.5 billion in downstream health care costs. We’ll see if it shows up in the spring budget.

There hardly seems to be fire lit underneath the Ministry of Health to implement what was essentially a very modest set of initiatives. Some might say too modest.

The report by the Healthy Kids Panel has few tangible recommendations around active living, for example, nor does it make any recommendations around regulation of processed food despite well-documented links to diabetes and heart disease.

The panel does recommend banning marketing of high-calorie, low nutrient foods to children. While that would be a no-cost item to government, more than a year after the report was issued Ontario has not yet acted.

There have been a few smaller initiatives started – the government maintains that it is working on breastfeeding supports, a student nutrition program, and an expansion of the Northern Fruit and Vegetable program which provides healthy snacks to 18,000 students. Up to 30 Ontario communities will get training and funding to run local initiatives under a program called the Healthy Kids Community Challenge.

The Wynne government did introduce legislation back in February that would force large restaurant chains to prominently post calories and other nutritional information (decided through regulation) on their menus and menu boards. The bill makes no mention of breaking down the nutritional information on sugar, salt and fat, unlike an earlier NDP bill from the same session which specifically targets sodium. The government bill is presently only at second reading and may not survive if a summer election is called. The NDP bill only passed first reading.

Kathleen Wynne would do well to read Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which underlines the scale and complexity of the problem.

A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Moss opens the book describing a 1999 meeting by executives of the food industry discussing how they need to alter their ways or face the same kind of litigation the tobacco industry has been subject to by U.S. States. Moss makes clear there is an understanding in the processed food industry that the race to hook consumers involves the marketing of products harmful to their health. They decided at the time to take no collective action.

Ironically it was Kraft, then owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, that was pushing for reform. Likely the new owners understood how the competition over taste, convenience and cost was a race to the bottom that posed potentially harmful effects on the world’s population and subsequent liability to these corporations. While Kraft later tried to go it alone in reducing salt, sugar and fat content, it was an impossible task without industry co-operation. Nobody is going to lose market share to do this.

Moss quotes former Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible, who despite being an opponent of big government, argued that “regulation may well be the best way” to limit salt, sugar, and fat content in processed food.

The Healthy Kids Strategy does link the issue with poverty, although only defers to the government’s existing anti-poverty strategy.

“We’re hooked on inexpensive food, just like we’re hooked on cheap energy,” former Pillsbury executive James Behnke tells Moss in his book. “The real question is this price sensitivity and, unfortunately, the growing disparity of income between the haves and have-nots. It costs more money to eat fresher, healthier foods. And so, there is a huge economic issue involved in the obesity problem. It falls most heavily on those who have the fewest resources and probably the least understanding, or knowledge, of what they are doing.”

Yet the panel failed to recommend even a modest tax on unhealthy foods — money that could have been used to offset the price of healthier alternatives.

The strategy also fails to take into account the contents of food, like tobacco and alcohol, can be addictive. Where is the response to this aspect of the obesity crisis? The various feel-good programs are not likely to address the kids who are already hooked on high-sugar pop and high-salt snacks.

Any kind of strategy is going to have to go beyond the classroom. If parents were well-informed and making good decisions, the food giants would be all migrating towards improving the health content in their foods. It is the parents, after all, who are guiding the cart through the grocery aisles.

Clearly there are mitigating circumstances parents face, including deceptive practices in labeling. For example, the practice of listing contents by serving is often totally unrealistic. As Frito Lay once pointed out in the marketing of its potato chips, betcha can’t eat just one.

Yet there is very little in the panel recommendations around disclosure. The Health Kids Panel does recommend “encouraging” food retailers – not regulating them – to adopt easy to understand standard, objective nutrition rating systems. Good luck with that.

Other countries have gone much further. Moss reports that Finland was able to address the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world by labelling every grocery item with high salt content with a prominent warning on the package. Begun in the late 1970s, by 2007 the Fins per capita consumption of salt had dropped by a third. Similarly, efforts in the UK have reduced salt intake by 15 per cent, saving as many as 10,000 deaths a year from strokes and heart disease. “People are starting to complain that when they go abroad, the food tastes too salty,” a UK professor told Moss.

Ontario needs to do better. We are far behind other jurisdictions — including Quebec which already has a ban on marketing to children. Ironically a year later we are still waiting for most of the implementation of a report cleverly titled No Time To Wait.

Given how limited this report is, it should be considered a mere starting point, not a long-term plan.

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