All chain restaurants in Ontario should display calorie counts on menus or display boards, an NDP MPP suggested at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

Bill 149 aims to amend the Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Smoke-Free Ontario Act to “address a long-standing gap in health promotion,” NDP health critic France Gelinas said at a news conference.

Gelinas, who represents the Nickel Belt, is calling for improved visibility of nutritional information at chain restaurants. The bill combines two of her previously introduced initiatives.

Gelinas is also calling for an upgraded ban on the sale of flavoured tobacco products.

If approved, Ontario chain restaurants with a minimum of five locations and gross annual revenue of more than $5 million would have to:

  • Display the number of calories contained in a single serving of all food and drink items sold. Calories must be advertised on a menu or display board, or on a tag or label on the food item itself.
  • Make brochures including all nutritional information on food and drink items available at the restaurants.
  • Indicate “high” and “very high” sodium content of food and drinks in a brochure, on menus or in another form that can be communicated to patrons immediately.

Gelinas noted that the measurement of calories per serving must refer to the amount actually sold as one meal or serving.

The number of calories must be posted next to the price of the item, in the same typeface and font size, she added in the bill.

Restaurants would also have to list information for all varieties, flavours and sizes of items sold.

Most restaurants already have brochures outlining nutritional information, but they keep them out of customers’ sight under the counter or on posters in darkened hallways, Gelinas said. “The problem is that nobody’s seeing them.”

“It is information we already have, I just want to make it accessible and available at the time of purchase.”

Though most people realize what they’re eating is unhealthy, many underestimate the number of calories consumed in one serving.

“Without seeing so on menus, the vast majority of Ontarians have no idea that, for example, the Tim Horton’s sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich (on a bagel) has nearly double the calories – at nearly 530 calories – of the English muffin with egg and cheese at 280 calories,” Bill Jeffery, from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said at the news conference.

“Likewise, McDonald’s third-pounder angus, bacon and cheese sandwich has more than double the amount of sodium … of the double-quarter hamburger without cheese,” Jeffrey said.

The lieutenant governor may set the standards for sodium levels, according to Subsection 93 (3) of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

Changes to tobacco sales

As part of the bill, Gelinas wants to amend the Smoke-Free Ontario Act to ban the sale of flavoured cigarillos and tobacco products unless they abide by the regulations outlined in the Act.

The bill suggests adding “smokeless tobacco products” (any products inhaled or chewed) to the list of products that need to follow government regulations, and banning all flavoured cigarillos other than menthol.

Though current laws ban the sale of flavoured cigarillos, the tobacco industry found loopholes and made changes, putting the products back on shelves.

Federal and provincial laws ban cigarillos weighing 1.4 grams or less, or cigarillos with a cigarette filter.

The provincial law, passed in 2009, was the first private member’s bill put forward by Gelinas. “The ink had not even dried on that bill when the industry found a loophole,” she said.

To get around the laws, the size of flavoured tobacco products was changed by adding more tobacco, and the filters were removed.

Because the products don’t meet the narrowly-defined standards, companies also don’t have to post graphic warnings on the packaging.

“I thought these were candy wrappers,” the Canadian Cancer Society’s Kelly Gorman said at a news conference Thursday. “This is stuff kids are not supposed to be using.”

Gelinas’ new bill broadens the ban to include the adjusted products.

The bill is in its second reading, where it is being debated. Next, the bill will be reviewed by a committee and amendments will be reported.

It will go for a third reading, where Ontario MPPs will vote for final approval. If it’s approved, it will be sent to the lieutenant governor for assent, then passed into law.