Nearly two dozen advocacy groups and more than 17,000 consumers banned together for a day of action last week, calling on infant formula manufacturers to follow international guidelines and stop from marketing baby formula to mothers in health care facilities.
The effort was highlighted by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen on May 21, which was the 33rd anniversary of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) adoption of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (WHO Code).
Thousands of breastmilk advocacy groups, mothers and other concerned citizens signed a petition organized by Public Citizen, which calls on baby formula manufacturers to stop advertising their products to mothers in hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities.
The petition was initially sent to Mead Johnson, the maker of Enfamil baby formula and one of the largest and most aggressive formula manufacturers. Public Citizen has plans to send petitions to Abbott, the maker of Similac formula, and Nestle, maker of Gerber Good Start formula, as well.
The event and petition is directed at large marketers of infant formula to call attention to what they say is a continuing unethical practice of promoting formula in health care settings, especially to women who have said they plan to breastfeed.
Large manufacturers, like Mead Johnson and Abbott, often provide free samples of infant formula to women in hospital discharge bags following delivery or at doctor’s visits. These practices are a violation of the WHO Code, critics say.
The petition sent to Mead Johnson headquarters outside of Chicago, IL, carried more than 17,000 signatures. In addition, many other consumers who stand behind the message launched campaigns on social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter to voice their concern with the practices and send photos and messages to the companies breaking the code.
The movement was spurred to focus attention on the importance breastfeeding plays in the early development and health of an infant and its mother. Studies suggest formula marketing in this manner undermines women’s success of breastfeeding.
The groups say they are not advocating against the use of formula if the use is necessary, instead placing a higher importance on the benefits of breastfeeding.
“Telling women that ‘breast is best’ while distributing formula company materials makes it potentially confusing and difficult for new mothers to make the best decision for themselves and their baby,” said Jennifer Ustianov in Public Citizen press release. Ustianov is a project director of the Best Fed Beginnings, Texas and New York state breastfeeding initiatives at the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality.
The movement also hopes to provide mothers with information which hasn’t been specifically influenced by formula companies. Many complain formula companies use health care outlets to push formula onto new moms.
The U.S. Surgeon General called for stricter enforcement of the WHO code in 2011, requiring designated hospitals to comply with the code.
Many Hospitals Taking Action
Research suggests that by 2007, 27% of hospitals discontinued the practice of offering formula in discharge bags of breastfeeding mothers. By 2011, 45% had ended the practice completely. All hospitals in Massachusetts and Rhode Island voluntarily banned the use of infant formula discharge bags.
Another survey found 82% of U.S. News and World Reports top-ranked hospitals and two-thirds of the highest ranking hospitals in gynecology no longer offered commercial formula discharge bags with samples.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with many other health care professionals and organizations, recommend mothers breast feed exclusively for the first six months to offer babies maximum benefits.
Mothers pass on antibodies to infants when nursing; antibodies which may help lower the occurrence of ear infections, respiratory infections, diarrhea, meningitis, sudden infant death syndrome and reduce allergies.
Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding their babies. Researchers have found breastfeeding offers a reduced risk o type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression.
Other sponsors of the initiative are the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, Best for Babes Foundation, National Women’s Health Network, Our Bodies Ourselves, La Leche League USA, California WIC Association and Breasfeeding coalitions in Chicago, New York, North Carolina and other organizations, among other nationally recognized organizations.