Should baby formula manufacturers be restricted in the marketing of their product?

To breastfeed or not is not the debate, as I see it.

Science tells us we should breastfeed, yet there are legitimate arguments to be made for women who choose not to–unless the mothers are unable to afford formula, or don’t have access to good healthcare, or don’t understand the benefits to their babies.

These are the women and babies the World Health Organization is trying to protect: the mothers who might not otherwise be able to provide clean formula, in appropriate amounts, along with adequate healthcare.

One vehicle to protect these babies is to limit the marketing to mothers from profit-minded formula manufacturers–that’s the position of the WHO.

But, is this appropriate?

Baby formula manufacturers need to be restricted in their marketing of substitutes for breast milk.

Nestle’s checkered past re: marketing

in the 1970s

Nestle aggressively marketed formula to mothers as better than breast milk, even though research said otherwise. They were heavily criticized for their marketing work in developing countries, among the poor.

Globally, they were distributing free formula to hospitals and maternity wards. After leaving the hospital, the formula would no longer be free, but–because the formula interfered with the production of milk in the mother–it had to be continued.

An international boycott of Nestle was started.

In May 1978, the U.S. Senate held a public hearing into the promotion of breast milk substitutes in developing countries and, in 1979, WHO and UNICEF called for the development of an international code of marketing for breast-milk substitutes.

International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes is written by the World Health Organization

The Code bans the promotion of breast milk substitutes and gives health workers the responsibility for advising parents on breastfeeding. It limits manufacturing companies to provide only scientific and factual information to health workers.

In 1984, Nestlé, agreed to implement the Code, and the boycott was stopped.

boycott is relaunched

In 1988 formula companies, including Nestle, were accused of–once again–flooding health facilities in developing countries with free and low-cost supplies.

The boycott was relaunched.

Between 1999 and 2011, organizations including Save the Children, CARE international, UNICEF, the WHO, World Vision and dozens of others organized boycotts and held hearings against the baby formula manufacturer for its practices in developing countries.

Claims against the company varied; here’s one example: One report said that Nestle’s products contradict its own marketing pitches. For example, some Nestle formulas sold in Hong Kong were marketed as healthier for not having added vanilla flavoring, while vanilla was found in several other of their products in Hong Kong, mainland China and South Africa.

“The report concludes that Nestle is not driven by nutritional science but instead by a sharp and prioritised focus on profit and growth at the expense of infants and their parents.”

Some universities, colleges, and schools have banned the sale of Nestlé products from their shops and vending machines in the period since the revelations.

Nestlé claims that it is in full compliance with the Code.

the problem with marketing to developing countries

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and Save the Children argue that the promotion of infant formula over breastfeeding has led to health problems and deaths among infants in less economically developed countries.

There are three problems that can arise when poor mothers in developing countries switch to formula as well as one list of benefits of breast milk:

  • Formula must be mixed with water, which is often contaminated in poor countries, leading to disease in infants.
  • Many poor mothers use less formula powder than is required, in order to make a container of formula last longer. As a result, some infants receive inadequate nutrition from weak solutions of formula.
  • Breastfed babies are protected from a number of illnesses, including diarrhea, bacterial meningitis, gastroenteritis, ear infection, and respiratory infection.

breastfeeding is worth selling to mothers

Breastfeeding is essential in developing countries. One study estimates that the deaths of over 823,000 children and 20,000 mothers would be prevented each year in low- and middle income countries if breastfeeding were adopted by those able to do so.

malnutrition and poverty

The president’s tweet: “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”

Health experts said the president’s stance suggested a lack of knowledge about the core issue regarding breastfeeding.

Dr. Michele Barry, director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health in the Stanford School of Medicine, told The New York Times, “Malnutrition and poverty are the precise settings where you absolutely do need to breastfeed, because that’s the setting where access to safe and clean water for reconstituting powdered formula is often impossible to find.”

Access to information about breast milk alternatives should remain.

breastfeeding and working moms

Working moms may struggle the most to meet the 6-month commitment to breastfeeding, with pumping milk as an awkward obligation while on the job.

some families can afford formula

The benefit of breastfeeding holds despite family income, but it’s clearly not as critical to populations with access to good healthcare and the means to support the added cost of formula.

breastfeeding and personal choice

Anything in the WHO position that sounds like a limit on personal choice on this highly personal issue runs contrary to how many people view freedom. It’s a don’t-tell-me-how-to-feed-my-child-and-what-I-should-do-with-my-body perspective.

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