Modern Child Sacrifice?

Economic interests trumped children’s health.

When we read Bible stories about sacrificing children to gods, we quickly explain that is ancient history; we claim we don’t do that anymore. Is that true? I pause now before saying that because this spring I witnessed a modern equivalent in the sacrifice of children’s health to our modern gods.  

I’m thinking about why Bill S-228 died in the Senate in June. The story goes like this:

Three years ago, Senator Nancy Greene, a former Olympic champion skater, introduced Bill S-228 to restrict the explicit advertising of junk food to young children. The case for doing this is solid. Obesity in young children leads to higher rates of type two diabetes and other health issues in later life. Canada has high and growing rates of obesity in young children. There is a clear association between repeated exposure to child-focused, appealing ads for foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt but have no nutritional value, rates of obesity and health problems. Societies that restrict such advertising to young children, such as Great Britain and Quebec, have lower rates of childhood obesity. The medical community, parent organizations, advocates for children and young people themselves supported this as a reasonable measure to improve children’s health across Canada.  

Opposition from the companies who profit from the manufacture of non-nutritious foods was expected. Careful definitions were developed through consultation over time and the target age was dropped to below 13. Heavy lobbying by the advertising industry claimed it would mean the loss of over a billion dollars in advertising revenue from our economy. A second argument was that publically recognizing these products as unhealthy might affect profits from exports of them, without any concern for the health of children elsewhere. Confidential letters from industry lobbyists to senators recommended using delay to kill the bill because they could not challenge its merits.   

Economic interests trumped children’s health. No one questioned that this would be a good move for children’s health. The best interests of children, which Canada supposedly endorses as a high priority, lost out to economic interests as our highest loyalty.  

Is it too strong to say that children’s health was sacrificed to the god of economic growth?  Listen to the words of Senator Tony Deans in a final debate when delay tactics were used to ensure the bill would not pass: “We’re talking about abandoning kids and the health of kids. We’re talking about ignoring the advice of the medical community, community health specialists and the concerns of parents. That is what we are doing. I think it’s important that everybody in this room understand that this is the fulcrum point.”  

Around the same time a national food policy, promised in 2015, was finally released. Nutritious food for everyone and reducing food waste are two stated goals, but specific plans to reach these goals are vague.  For at-risk children, more affordable nutritious food and reducing the pressure to eat junk foods complement each other to improve health. Will either one or both be taken seriously or will both continue to be sacrificed to the god of economic growth?  I find myself wondering what Elijah, Amos, Micah, or Isaiah might say if they visited Canada today.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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