Policy update on restricting food advertising primarily directed at children: Policy background

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The World Health Organization (WHO) set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, endorsed at the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010, called for Member States to introduce policies that reduce the impact of advertising to children of foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fatFootnote 1. To date, implementation of these recommendations has been limited. Member States have faced challenges in fully implementing these recommendations and none have eliminated children's exposure to advertising for foods that contribute to unhealthy dietsFootnote 2.

The research to date on the impacts of existing food advertising restrictions has reported mainly positive, but mixed results, largely due to inconsistency in study types and the mix of mandatory and voluntary policies in effect. A recent systematic review of existing policies found evidence that they may result in reduced purchases of foods that contribute to an unhealthy dietFootnote 3.

Mandatory policies were more likely to be effective when they:

Nutrient profile models classify foods based on the types and amounts of nutrients they contain. Other evaluation studies have found that food advertising restrictions are associated with:

  1. decreases in young children's exposure to advertising of foods high in nutrients of concernFootnote 4
  2. decreases in ad expenditures for these types of foodsFootnote 5Footnote 6
  3. decreases in use of characters or celebrities in food advertisingFootnote 7
  4. lower fast-food consumptionFootnote 8

Internationally, there is a diversity of mandatory and voluntary restrictions on food advertising to childrenFootnote 9. These advertising restrictions differ in terms of the age of children covered, their scope and approach, as well as the nutrient criteria used to identify foods subject to advertising restriction.

Mandatory restrictions

In North America, Quebec and Mexico are the only jurisdictions with mandatory restrictions on food advertising to children. Self-regulatory codes and initiatives cover the remainder of the continent.

Quebec (1980): The Consumer Protection Act prohibits commercial advertising directed at children under the age of 13. The ban applies to the advertising of all goods and services, including food.

One study found that television food advertisements were less likely to target children in Quebec (compared to Ontario)Footnote 10. In addition, French language television in Quebec had a lower proportion of advertised foods classified as high in sodium, sugars or fatFootnote 11.

Mexico (2014): Following several years of self-regulation, Mexico introduced restrictions on food advertising directed at children under the age of 13 on television and in cinemas. Food category-specific thresholds were set for energy, sodium, saturated fat and total sugars. Restrictions were applied to programs with more than 35% child audience at specific times of the day. Later, in 2020, Mexico prohibited the use of child-appealing packaging and labelling on foods with front of package labels (signalling excess calories, salt, free sugars, and saturated or trans fats).

Elsewhere, a small, but growing number of countries have enacted mandatory restrictions on food advertising to children. Countries in South America and Europe have been at the forefront. The following list provides examples of jurisdictions with mandatory restrictions on food advertising to children.

Chile (2016) phased in a regulatory approach that prohibited advertising targeted at children under the age of 14 of any food that is high in calories, saturated fats, sugars or sodium. The regulation covers many types of media and settings such as television, digital, packaging and schools. A 20% child audience threshold is used to determine where the restriction applies on television and websites. An evaluation study found that children's exposure to "high-in" food advertising on television decreased by an average of 44% for pre-schoolers and 58% for adolescentsFootnote 12.

Argentina (2022) prohibits advertising directed to children and adolescents of food products that have a front of package warning label (signalling excess calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar or sodium)Footnote 13.

The United Kingdom (UK) (2022) passed legislation that will enable new food advertising restrictions on television between 5:30 am and 9 pm, and a total ban of all paid-for ads online as of October 2025. This builds on existing co-regulation of advertising directed at children under the age of 16 in broadcast media, and self-regulation in non-broadcast media. The UK nutrient profiling model assigns a score to foods based on their calorie, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, fruit, vegetable, nut, fibre and protein content.

Portugal (2019) prohibits advertising directed to children and adolescents under the age of 16 of foods high in energy, salt, sugars or saturated fatty acids on television, digital media, radio, cinemas, print media, schools and playgrounds.

Spain (2021) announced that it is developing new mandatory restrictions after concluding that industry self-regulation had been ineffective. The scope of restriction would include advertising on television, radio, cinema screens, social media networks, websites and apps directed at children under the age of 16. Spain has proposed to use the WHO-Europe nutrient profile model, which establishes category-specific limits for total fat, saturated fat, total sugars, added sugars, non-sugar sweeteners, sodium and calories.


Many countries, including the USA and Australia, continue to rely on industry-led self-regulation of food advertising to children.

In Canada, industry introduced the Children's Advertising Initiative (CAI) in 2007. This is a voluntary initiative restricting advertising of certain foods to children. Despite its intent, Canadian research has demonstrated that this initiative leaves children significantly exposed to food advertisingFootnote 14Footnote 15Footnote 16.

In June 2021, 4 industry associations launched a new self-regulatory food advertising code. This code will replace the CAI, with implementation planned by summer 2023Footnote 17.

Self-regulatory approaches have often been found to be ineffective in meaningfully reducing children's exposure to food advertisementsFootnote 18Footnote 19Footnote 20Footnote 21Footnote 22.

Developments in Canada

In October 2016, the Minister of Health launched the Healthy Eating Strategy to help improve the food environment. Restricting food advertising to children is an important component of this Strategy and has been a Minister of Health mandate commitment since 2015.

Between 2016 and 2019, Health Canada consulted extensively on a policy proposal to restrict food advertising to children in various settings and media. Bill S-228 (an Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children)) was tabled in the Senate in 2016 but did not come to a final vote before the end of the 42nd parliamentary session.

Since then, Health Canada has undertaken a range of activities, including implementing a comprehensive monitoring strategy, and reviewing new initiatives, evidence and stakeholder feedback, to determine an appropriate approach to help protect the health of children and deliver on the mandate commitment to support restrictions on the commercial marketing of food and beverages to children.

Private Members' Bill C-252 was introduced in the House of Commons in February 2022 and is currently proceeding through Parliament. As introduced, the Bill proposes to amend the Food and Drugs Act to prohibit the advertising of foods and beverages that contribute to excess sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat in children's diets in a manner that is primarily directed at persons who are under 13 years of age and provides supporting regulation-making authorities.

Regulatory plan

The proposed restrictions could be implemented under existing regulatory authorities under the Food and Drugs Act, or new authorities if Bill C-252 receives Royal Assent.

Health Canada's comprehensive M2K surveillance monitoring

Monitoring food advertising to children in Canada is an important part of Health Canada's role in developing evidence-informed nutrition policy. The Department is monitoring the media and settings where children spend the most time and are more likely to be exposed to food advertising. In addition, Health Canada is also monitoring the techniques that are most prominently used in advertising primarily directed at children. The Department will construct a baseline of Canadian data that can be used to measure changes over time, so that we can better understand the state of food advertising to children in Canada. The results of this monitoring will be publicly available in the form of:


Footnote 1

World Health Organization. (2010). Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

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Footnote 2

WHO Regional Office for Europe. (2018). Evaluating implementation of the WHO Set of Recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children: progress, challenges and guidance for next steps in the WHO European Region.

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Footnote 3

Boyland E, McGale L, Maden M, Hounsome J, Boland A, & Jones A. (2022). Systematic review of the effect of policies to restrict the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to which children are exposedObesity Reviews, 23(8), e13447.

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Footnote 4

Dillman Carpentier FR, Correa T, Reyes M, & Taillie LS. (2020). Evaluating the impact of Chile's marketing regulation of unhealthy foods and beverages: pre-school and adolescent children's changes in exposure to food advertising on televisionPublic Health Nutrition, 23(4), 747-755.

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Footnote 5

Silva A, Higgins LM, & Hussein M. (2015). An evaluation of the effect of child-directed television food advertising regulation in the United KingdomCanadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 63(4), 583-600.

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Footnote 6

Kim S, Lee Y, Yoon J, Chung S, Lee S, & Kim H. (2013). Restriction of television food advertising in South Korea: impact on advertising of food companiesHealth Promotion International, 28(1), 17-25.

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Footnote 7

Potvin Kent M, Dubois L, & Wanless A. (2011). Food marketing on children's television in two different policy environmentsInternational Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 6(sup3), e433-441.

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Footnote 8

Dhar T, & Baylis K. (2011). Fast-food consumption and the ban on advertising targeting children: The Quebec experience. Journal of Marketing Research, 48(5), 799-813.

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Footnote 9

World Cancer Research Fund International. (Not dated). NOURISHING database: Restrict food advertising and other forms of commercial promotion.

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Footnote 10

Potvin Kent M, Dubois L, & Wanless A. (2011). Food marketing on children's television in two different policy environmentsInternational Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 6(sup3), e433-441.

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Footnote 11

Potvin MP, Dubois L, & Wanless A. (2012). A nutritional comparison of foods and beverages marketed to children in two advertising policy environmentsObesity, 20(9), 1829-1837.

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Footnote 12

Dillman Carpentier FR, Correa T, Reyes M, & Taillie LS. (2020). Evaluating the impact of Chile's marketing regulation of unhealthy foods and beverages: pre-school and adolescent children's changes in exposure to food advertising on television. Public Health Nutrition, 23(4), 747–755.

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Footnote 13

Republic of Argentina. (2021). Promotion of Healthy Food: Law 27.642 Provisions [translated].

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Footnote 14

Potvin Kent M, Martin CL, & Kent EA. (2014). Changes in the volume, power and nutritional quality of foods marketed to children on television in Canada. Obesity, 22(9), 2053–2060.

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Footnote 15

Potvin Kent M, Smith JR, Pauzé E, & L'Abbé M. (2018). The effectiveness of the food and beverage industry's self-established uniform nutrition criteria at improving the healthfulness of food advertising viewed by Canadian children on television. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 15(1), 57.

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Footnote 16

Potvin Kent M, & Pauzé, E. (2018). The effectiveness of self-regulation in limiting the advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages on children's preferred websites in Canada. Public Health Nutrition, 21(9), 1608-1617.

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Footnote 17

Association of Canadian Advertisers, Canadian Beverage Association, Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada & Restaurants Canada. (2021). Code and guide for the responsible advertising of food and beverage products to children.

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Footnote 18

The European Consumer Organisation. (2021). Food marketing to children needs rules with teeth: A snapshot report about how self-regulation fails to prevent unhealthy foods to be marketed to children.

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Footnote 19

León-Flández K, Rico-Gómez A, Moya-Geromin MÁ, Romero-Fernández M, Bosqued-Estefania MJ, Damián J, López-Jurado L, & Royo-Bordonada MÁ. (2017). Evaluation of compliance with the Spanish code of self-regulation of food and drinks advertising directed at children under the age of 12 years in Spain, 2012Public Health, 150, 121-129.

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Footnote 20

Watson WL, Lau V, Wellard L, Hughes C, & Chapman K. (2017). Advertising to children initiatives have not reduced unhealthy food advertising on Australian televisionJournal of Public Health, 39(4), 787-792.

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Footnote 21

Wootan MG, Almy J, Ugalde M, & Kaminski M. (2019). How do nutrition guidelines compare for industry to market food and beverage products to children? World Health Organization nutrient profile standards versus the US children's food and beverage advertising initiative. Childhood Obesity, 15(3), 194-199.

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Footnote 22

Chambers SA, Freeman R, Anderson AS, & MacGillivray S. (2015). Reducing the volume, exposure and negative impacts of advertising for foods high in fat, sugar and salt to children: A systematic review of the evidence from statutory and self-regulatory actions and educational measures. Preventive Medicine, 75, 32-43.

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