OTTAWA — The majority of Canadians strongly support an outright ban on junk food marketing aimed at children, a new government-commissioned survey has found.
More than half of those surveyed (53 per cent) said they are strong supporters of banning all marketing of high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt foods aimed directly at kids and youth. Six in 10 strongly support restricting this type of junk-food marketing.
Support for the taxation of junk food and sugary drinks is also "high," with a significant minority strongly supporting slapping a special tax on soft drinks (40 per cent) and junk foods such as chips and candy (37 per cent) to fund programs to fight childhood obesity.
The idea of a tax on soft drinks has taken off in some jurisdictions in the United States and Europe, but not in Canada.
Meanwhile, a solid majority of Canadians strongly support requiring fast food restaurants to list nutrition information on their menus and companies to provide straightforward nutrition info on the front of food packages. Seven in 10 support these labelling moves to provide greater clarity for consumers looking to curb their intake of sodium, fat or sugar.
The survey and accompanying focus groups, commissioned by the Public Health Agency of Canada (external - login to view) to gauge the public's appetite for government initiatives to combat childhood obesity, illustrate some schisms between public opinion and how far governments are willing to go.
For example, the province of Quebec is in the minority with its ban on junk food advertising aimed at children. But during eight focus groups held in Toronto, Halifax, Winnipeg and Montreal to further probe attitudes about childhood obesity, participants "expressed concern, often unprompted, with the widespread marketing of unhealthy food choices," the report states.
"This issue was seen as a major contributor to the problem of childhood obesity. Furthermore, there was a general agreement that this issue needed to be addressed if Canada was truly serious about dealing with childhood obesity."
Meanwhile, despite solid support for requiring fast-food chains to disclose nutrition info on their menus, provinces have not made this mandatory. Provinces like British Columbia are opting for voluntary programs such as Informed Dining, which involves a directional statement on the menu or menu board advising customers that nutrition info is available upon request — usually in a pamphlet.
And while survey respondents expressed an interest in clearer nutrition info on the front of food packages, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq recently defended the way food companies label their food products after a U.S. government science panel concluded in October that front-of-package nutrition messages confuse consumers.
Aglukkaq said consumers in Canada already have "the tools they need to make healthy food choices when they shop for groceries."
Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Aglukkaq, said Monday that provinces are free to pursue junk food marketing bans at the provincial level. He also said the food and restaurant industries can make labelling adjustments to meet consumer wishes.
But Outhouse quashed the idea of any federal support for a tax on soft drinks.
"Polling is done to gauge public sentiment. Obviously, we don't use it to form public policy," he said.
Last year, health groups called on Parliament to support an excise tax of one cent per litre in order to reduce consumption of soft drinks and help fight the rising number of Canadians who are overweight or obese.
Based on the amount of soft drinks consumed in Canada every year, the Quebec-based Weight Coalition estimates a tax on soft drinks would generate $36 million in revenue that could be reinvested in health promotion programs.
The Ipsos Reid survey of 1,222 Canadian adults was carried out last March, with a margin of error of 2.8 points. The accompanying focus groups were held last June.