Bill please! Canada’s kids need the government’s support before costs grow

Op-ed by Alex Munter, President and CEO of CHEO, the national capital’s pediatric health centre.

If you have ever watched the hit TV series “Mad Men,” one thing you will remember is that everybody smoked. Everyone. Everywhere. It was a great show, in part, because it was like a trip back in time, showing us what life was like in the American advertising industry in the early 1960s. Smoking was just a part of normal life.

Jump to today and smoking no longer looks normal. Modern viewers gasp, “Why are they killing themselves like that? How could they think that wouldn’t harm them?”

In the mid-1960s, the link between smoking and cancer was confirmed and, gradually, we achieved a great turnaround in attitudes and policies about smoking. Tobacco taxes rose, advertising was banned, smoking was stopped in work and public places, packages made plain and with graphic warnings and concealed in stores. In short, governments made a concerted effort to force changes in smoking habits.

Though there is still work to do, there has been notable success. The percentage of smokers has plummeted and, with it, the cost of treating tobacco-related health issues has been cut in half. As a society, we “de-normalized” smoking.

We need to do it all over again. This time the target must be our diets, particularly those of our children. We are, quite literally, letting our kids eat themselves sick. Childhood obesity has risen exponentially, and with it, dangerous chronic diseases, starting in children. For the first time, we are in real danger of having a younger generation that does not live as long as their parents.

There are many reasons for this. But just as smoking was “normalized” decades ago by a flood of advertising and cheap, ready availability of appealing products, so has the drinking of sugary drinks and eating of processed foods high in sugar, saturated fat and salt become ubiquitous among our kids.

We see the results every day in Canada’s children’s hospitals, including the one I lead. At a retirement party a few years ago for a long-time nurse in our diabetes clinic, she noted that when she started in the mid-1970s, all the children seen in the clinic had type 1 diabetes – caused genetically. Now, That’s no longer the case. A growing number of children and youth we see have type 2 diabetes – caused by their diet. They face a future of health challenges.

Most people are aware of the connection between obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Less well known is its correlation with cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society earlier this month reported that excess weight is expected to become the second leading preventable cause of cancer, behind only the continued effects of tobacco use.

What should we do to fix this huge problem?

There’s no magic bullet, but we won’t even begin to tackle this until we stop bombarding our children with messages online and everywhere else they look about how great these foods taste. Over 90 per cent of food and drink products they see on TV and online are for products high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

That’s why the federal government has wisely decided to restrict advertising of food and beverages to children, something already done in many other places, including in Quebec where this important step was taken almost 40 years ago.

This legislation, Bill S-228, originated in the Senate almost three years ago as a response from Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine to the Senate report, Obesity in Canada. It was approved by our elected MPs last September and returned to the Senate for what should have been a routine second approval before it became law. It’s been almost 1,000 days since the bill was first introduced in the Senate.

We are still waiting, and time is running out. If not approved in the next few weeks, this vital bill will die when Parliament rises for the summer and the fall election. That’s not OK. I chaired an Ontario expert panel on childhood obesity in 2013 that recommended this change. Many other reports have reiterated that call over the years.

Our kids have waited long enough. It’s time.