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Class-Action Lawsuit Against McDonald's In Quebec Alleges Retailer Targeted Kids

Quebec's Consumer Protection Act forbids advertising to children under 13.
A McDonald's restaurant in Laval, Que., Tues. June 20, 2017.
Canadian Press/Mario Beauregard
A McDonald's restaurant in Laval, Que., Tues. June 20, 2017.

A proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed by a group of Quebec parents against McDonald's, accusing the fast-food chain of illegally marketing its popular "Happy Meals" to children under the age of 13.

Filed Tuesday at the Montreal courthouse, the lawsuit alleges that McDonald's is breaking a provincial law, which prohibits any form of publicity aimed at children, by showcasing the Happy Meal toys on displays placed at the kids' eye-level. The plaintiffs argue that the displays encourage children to ask their parents to buy them a Happy Meal.

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The proposed class action comes just as a bill restricting marketing of unhealthy foods to children is set to undergo its final vote in Canada's Senate. Introduced by Sen. Greene Raine in 2016, Bill S-228 draws its inspiration from the Quebec legislation.

Article 248 of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act states that "no person may make use of commercial advertising directed at persons under thirteen years of age."

Currently in other Canadian provinces, advertising to children is only regulated by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary program in which McDonald's takes part.

Not a 'direct incitement,' says McDonald's

The definition of what constitutes advertising will be at the heart of the proposed class action, since the language of the Quebec law is pretty vague. According to the text, "to advertise" means "to prepare, utilize, distribute, publish or broadcast an advertisement, or to cause it to be distributed, published or broadcast."

Quoted in La Presse, one of McDonald's' lawyers emphasized that the legislation makes certain exceptions when it comes to store windows, displays and packaging. Douglas Mitchell argued that the fact the toys are placed in direct view of the children does not constitute "direct incitement" to ask for a Happy Meal. He believes the displays are no different than cereal boxes with free toys, which are legally sold in grocery stores.

Justice Pierre-C. Gagnon of the Superior Court of Quebec should decide in the next few months whether to allow the class action against McDonald's to go forward.

In February, McDonald's promised it would make some of its Happy Meals healthier before 2022.

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