The United States' northern neighbour has seen obesity levels among children rise steadily in recent years, and many health professionals believe that only statutory legislation prohibiting marketing to children will be enough to stem the rising tide. Acting on the advice of the city's chief medical officer of health, Dr David McKeown, the Toronto board of health last week adopted a motion calling on the federal and provincial governments to push for a total ban on advertising to children. Sixteen of Canada's largest food companies recently agreed not to advertise to children under 12 - or to market only their healthier products, but McKeown argues that this kind of self-regulation does not work. "Most of the food and beverages advertised heavily to children are poor in nutrients and high in calories," McKeown said. "The rules don't mean that the food being advertised is, in fact, healthy and the basis for a healthy diet for a child. It just means that it is somewhat less harmful than their less healthy choices." The Canadian parliament's health committee last year published a report which found that 26 per cent of Canadians aged two to 17 are overweight or obese. Quebec is currently the only Canadian province to impose a ban on junk food advertising to children, but McKeown urged Canadian politicians to follow the lead of the UK, where all advertising to children of foods high in fat, sugar and salt is prohibited. McKeown hopes that the support of the Toronto board of health will convince the national government in Ottowa to take a tougher stance on food advertising to children. In his report to the board of health, McKeown said that there was a strong body of evidence to suggest that that eating habits, both good and bad, are established early in life. He cited US studies that show that kids see 27 television commercials for sugary cereals for every public announcement on healthy eating. But, like Canada, the US has preferred to let the food industry police itself when it comes to advertising to children. Most of the leading US food producers and fast-food operators last year pledged to restrict their marketing to children under pressure from Congressman Edward Markey, chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Markey had suggested that the failure of the food industry to act responsibly was pushing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) towards imposing a ban on all junk food ads - a suggestion that led to a rapid response from the food industry. But while more than a dozen companies, including Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Kellogg and Burger King, agreed to sign up to a program from the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) obliging them to eliminate the use of licensed characters to market unhealthy food, and limit marketing to children 12 and younger to foods that meet specific nutritional guidelines, some companies - notably Nestle and Dannon - declined to do so. This, Markey said, left open the possibility of new FCC regulations to enforce advertising restrictions - although no proposals have as yet been put forward.