Advertising Bans Work: Quebec Has Lowest Childhood Obesity Rate

“Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions in a sesame seed bun…” I can still remember the jingle, word for word, from being exposed to those Big Mac commercials as a child. But does childhood exposure to fast food advertising have an impact beyond giving us a horrible ear worm for life? Recent research suggests that it does.

The province of Quebec in Canada has the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country despite having one of the most sedentary lifestyles. How is that possible? A study by Tirtha Dhar and Kathy Baylis found that Quebec’s 32 year ban on advertising to children led to an estimated:

  • US$88 million annual reduction in expenditures on fast food
  • 13.4 billion to 18.4 billion fewer fast food calories being consumed per year

The study also found that patterns established in childhood carried into adulthood, with French speaking young adults in Quebec being 38% less likely to purchase fast food than French speaking young adults in Ontario (where there is no advertising ban).

Parents should ‘just say no’

This study provides further proof that advertising works. It also demonstrates that parents whose children are constantly begging for fast food (after being exposed to ads) end up purchasing fast food more frequently than parents whose children are not exposed to advertising.  Many people say that those parents should “just say no” and take some personal responsibility. Perhaps that is true, but is that the best we can do as a society?

In the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains that parents are constantly put in the position of having to say no:

‘No’ to pizza days at school. ‘No’ to chocolate milk as part of the school lunch program. ‘No’ to the freezies handed out after soccer practice. ‘No’ to the meal and the co-branded Disney toy that was advertised on television. ‘No’ to the sugary cereal with the decoder ring on the bottom.

Some parents do say no over and over again, but some don’t for a variety of reasons. Freedhoff goes on to ask whether we should rely exclusively on parental responsibility:

As an increasingly unhealthy society, the question we need to urgently wrestle with is should a non-uniformly delivered parental “no” be our sole line of defense against the incredibly aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to our children?

That is a good question for the managers of Canada’s ParticipACTION program, which  has partnered with Coca Cola to “ensure a Canadian society where people are the most physically active on earth.” Getting kids off the couch is good. Telling them to guzzle high fructose corn syrup filled fizzy drinks is not so great.

Need a multi-faceted approach to combating childhood obesity

Although the authors of the study on Quebec support the use of legislation to restrict advertising to children, they emphasize that, it shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolbox. Dhar told UBC’s Sauder School of Business:

Legislation should just be one of the tools in a larger, comprehensive plan that includes education about healthy eating and parental care. The key issue is how you manage the environment for your children, from which TV programs they watch to the kinds of food they eat.

A multi-faceted approach to combating childhood obesity is certainly required. One that looks at providing greater access to healthy foods, educating the pubic about healthy eating, ensuring children have plenty of opportunities to go outside and play (both at school and in structured and unstructured recreational activities), and reducing children’s exposure to advertising that could shape a lifetime of bad eating habits.

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Photo credit: hildaaa on flickr

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Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Klara Willyn
Klara Willyn2 years ago

I'm not a huge proponent of letting the government control the media, but I'm more against corporations controlling the mentally vulnerable with targeted advertising. Then again, people should just learn to expose the tricks that advertisers use to their children. Educate them, and inform them. That way they are more likely to make their own choices rather than doing as they're told by a commercial.

Michele Jones
Michele Jones2 years ago

The Quebec research is fascinating. I hate to say it, but our TV stations obtain a great deal of their revenue from fast food commercials. Should they be banned, it's safe to say goodbye to free over-air TV and hello to rising cable and satellite rates.

Wouldn't a better approach be to keep our kids busy and away from the TV?

Amber Martingale
Angela Roquemore2 years ago

Dale O.: No. Don't ban them completely (Christmas ads), but def. ban them from starting right after HALLOWEEN! Ban then from starting before December 1st!

Amber Martingale
Angela Roquemore2 years ago

Even if the advertising were banned, it wouldn't go over well in the US, which is why I voted No in the poll.

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V.3 years ago

Life is about choices, to each their own.
I'm fed up with having my choices taken away.

ii q.
g d c.3 years ago

smart move - banning advertising rather than the food itself...

Dale Overall

A good idea, nothing like being lured by jingles to ask Mom and Dad to buy, this buy that, it looks soo oo tasty that I will die without it! Might be a great idea for Christmas commercials as well.

Lynette B.
Lynette B.3 years ago

I agree: "A multi-faceted approach to combating childhood obesity is certainly required."

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

I don't let my 12 year old watch regular tv, and only channels such as Discovery, science channel, and other learning type programming... And guess what? That's even restricted to days where weather prevents from going outside. Even then, there are books, computerized math games, and more... And my son rarely eats fast food at all.

But of course, a lot has to do with why you want to restrict the advertizing. Is it because obesity is a real problem that is weighing on the tax payers, or just that you're against fast food places advertizing? If it's out of real issue, then fine. If not, well, it's a free market, money talks...