How Formula Marketing Affects Our Infant Feeding Decisions first report in the World Health Organization series (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is based on interviews with parents, pregnant women, and healthcare professionals in eight countries.
More than half of those surveyed admitted that they had been harassed by milk formula companies.
UNICEF and WHO allege that the $55 billion dairy industry is using systematic and unethical marketing strategies to influence parental infant feeding decisions and exploitative practices that compromise children’s nutrition and violate international obligations.
“This report makes it very clear that formula marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive.” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, calling for “urgent adoption and enforcement of exploitative marketing regulations to protect children’s health”.
The report states that not only industry marketing practices include unregulated and invasive online targeting, but also sponsored advisory networks and helplines; promotions and free gifts offered; and influenced the training and advice of healthcare professionals.
Barriers to breastfeeding
The report highlights that the industry often provides misleading and scientifically unfounded information to parents and healthcare professionals, and violates International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes is a landmark public health agreement to protect mothers from aggressive marketing by baby food manufacturers.
In a survey of 8,500 parents and pregnant women and 300 healthcare professionals worldwide, the report found that exposure to formula marketing reached 84 percent of all women surveyed in the United Kingdom; 92% in Vietnam and 97% in China, making them more likely to opt for artificial feeding.
“False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a significant barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers.” said UNICEF Executive Director Katherine Russell.
In all countries surveyed, women expressed a strong desire to exclusively breastfeed, ranging from 49 percent in Morocco to 98 percent in Bangladesh.
However, the WHO/UNICEF report details how a constant stream of misleading marketing messages reinforce myths about breastfeeding and breastmilk and undermine women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.
Ms Russell called for “tough policy, legislation and investment in breastfeeding” to protect women from unethical marketing practices and give them access “to the information and support they need to start a family.”
Some of the myths about breastfeeding include insufficient breast milk for infant nutrition; that infant formula improves development or immunity; and that the quality of breast milk deteriorates over time.
According to data, Breastfeeding within the first hour after birth followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or longer is a powerful line of defense against all forms of childhood malnutrition.
Breastfeeding also acts as the first vaccine for babies, protecting babies from many common childhood illnesses, as well as reducing the future risks of diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer in breastfeeding mothers.
According to the WHO, breastfeeding is the best way to provide babies with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development and can prevent 13 percent of infant mortality.
Milk mixture withales doubled in 20 years
Despite these benefits, worldwide, only 44 percent of children under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.
While global breastfeeding rates have increased very modestly over the past two decades, formula milk sales have more than doubled in about the same time.
And, alarmingly, the report notes that the baby food industry has reached out to healthcare professionals in every country with promotional gifts, research funding and even sales commissions to influence new mothers in their feeding choices.
More than a third of the women surveyed said a health care provider had recommended a particular brand of formula to them.
Following the release of the WHO report, UNICEF and partners called on governments, health professionals and infant formula manufacturers to end the exploitative marketing of formula milk.
They also called for full implementation of the requirements of the Code, including through the adoption, monitoring and enforcement of laws aimed at preventing advertising of formula milks; investing in policies and programs to support breastfeeding, such as adequate paid parental leave; and prohibiting healthcare workers from receiving sponsorship from companies that sell infant and toddler food for scholarships, awards, grants, meetings or events.
Milk formula and tobacco are the only two products for which there are international recommendations to ban marketing.
In this case, through International Code marketing of breast milk substitutes.