Two vital federal health commitments must not be left unfinished

By Tom Warshawski and Manuel Arango

In 1822, Franz Schubert wrote the first two movements of his 8th Symphony. He never completed the additional two movements that would make it complete. One theory is that he was faced with competing projects, so we know it today as the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Two vital health projects with the federal government risk the same unfinished fate: legislation to restrict food marketing to children and new labelling regulations mandating clear, simple front-of-package nutrition information on food products. Almost all the work is done; they are just not finished.

There are many competing priorities facing the government. And we all know that the need for measures that support Canadians to make healthy choices is even greater now, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But commitments to complete these close to finished items should be re-included in the mandate letter for the new session of Parliament from the Prime Minister to the Minister of Health.

Both of these policy measures have already gone through full development and are ready to be completed without delay.

In fact, the legislation to restrict food marketing to children was first introduced in the Senate in 2016 as a private member’s bill by now-retired Senator Nancy Greene Raine. It was passed by the House of Commons in 2018. It had to be returned to the Senate for what should have been routine final approval but was the victim of stall tactics before Parliament recessed for the summer in 2019. Then the election was called and the legislation died.

There is an opportunity now to quickly introduce the bill as government legislation.

A lot of work has also been done on the development of new front-of-package nutrition labelling requirements, with promising new regulations introduced in February 2018. The election also stalled its progress and it has not been resurrected since.

For the past six months, the government’s work has rightly been dominated by management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, however, it is clear the pandemic will be with us for some time and other matters cannot continue to be ignored. Indeed, the stated reason for the prorogation of the last session of Parliament was to “build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier…”

That means we cannot afford to ignore basic unfinished health issues. In fact, the evidence is already strong that the pandemic is exacerbating problems both of these new actions are intended to help fix including unhealthy eating habits and excess weight gain, both of which have dire consequences for our health, particularly among our young people.

Researchers at the University of Guelph reported in August that as a result of the pandemic, screen time increased among almost nine out of 10 (87 per cent) Canadian children. Almost 60 per cent of children were eating more snack foods and more than 40 per cent eating more food in total; and this is even higher for adults.

Another study published in July found that only one in 20 Canadian youths (4.8 per cent) was meeting physical movement guidelines during the pandemic restrictions. All this is consistent with international findings that the pandemic has affected physical activity and eating behaviours in a health compromising direction.

The pandemic is making an already bad situation worse. We have known for decades that the health risks linked to unhealthy diets reduce life expectancy and increase the risk of serious non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Now we know these conditions also put people at higher risk of serious medical complications from COVID-19.

In 2017, 48,000 deaths in Canada were attributable to unhealthy diets – five times the Canadian death toll thus far from COVID-19. We now have a generation of Canadian children who have known nothing but diets high in ultra-processed foods. They are bombarded by advertising online, on television, in stores — virtually everywhere they go. At the same time, their parents’ efforts to buy nutritious food are thwarted by complicated information and duplicitous marketing claims on packaging.

We can, and must, fix this. Seven in 10 Canadians said in August that the pandemic will have long-term effects on children and they are almost unanimous (92 per cent) in believing that children should be a priority as the federal government develops plans and policies related to the pandemic recovery and beyond.

There is a great opportunity for the government to complete some unfinished business by quickly enacting both the food marketing to kids restrictions and labelling regulations. The health of Canadians will benefit.

Dr. Tom Warshawski is Chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation.

Manuel Arango is Director, Health Policy & Advocacy at Heart & Stroke.

Photo: iStock