Parents Exposed to Aggressive Baby Formula Marketing, WHO Report Finds

Baby formula marketing has violated international standards and attempted to influence which products health care workers recommended to new parents

A recent report by international health experts warns that parents and expecting mothers are often bombarded with aggressive infant formula advertising, even when formula feeding may not be the best option for the child.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on infant formula marketing (PDF) on February 22, revealing that more than half of parents and pregnant women are targeted by advertising in a way that “compromises child nutrition” and violates some international standards and commitments.

The findings come amid increasing concerns about marketing efforts by the makers of Similac and Enfamil, which some critics have indicated were a direct response to moves in recent years by health officials to promote breast feeding.

Hundreds of families nationwide are now pursuing Similac lawsuits and Enfamil lawsuits after premature babies developed a devastating gastrointestinal condition, known as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), alleging that the manufacturers suppressed information about the increased risk associated with use of the cow’s milk formula and fortifier products, compared to breast milk.

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Baby Formula Lawsuits

Premature infants fed Similac or Enfamil cow's milk formula faced increased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) or wrongful death.


According to WHO investigators, the $55 billion formula industry has employed unregulated and invasive online advertising, sponsored networks and helplines, and gave out promotions and free gifts to influence parents and health workers. Many of those advertisements and outreaches were misleading, scientifically inaccurate or unsubstantiated, and violated the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk substitutes, which was passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to prevent just such tactics, WHO said.

“This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a press release. “Regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.”

The WHO survey collected data from 8,500 parents and pregnant women, as well as 300 health workers from several countries, including Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. According to the report, 84% of women in the U.K, 92% of women in Vietnam and 97% of women in China say the were subjected to formula marketing which increased the likelihood that they would choose formula feeding.

The report also indicates a large number of health care workers from around the world say they were approached by the formula industry, which tried to influence their recommendations to new parents with promotional gifts, free samples, research funding, paying for trips to meetings, events and conferences, and even offering some commissions on sales, with more than a third of women surveyed saying a health worker had recommended they use a specific brand of infant formula.

WHO is encouraging nations to pass and enforce laws preventing the promotion of formula milk, investing in policies that support breastfeeding, granting paid parental leave, requesting the industry publicly commit to complying with international codes and banning health workers from being sponsored by companies that market food to infants and young children.

NEC Formula Lawsuits

Necrotizing enterocolitis is one of the more severe risks associated with cow’s milk-based infant formula products, such as Enfamil and Similac, which occurs when the wall of the intestine are invaded by bacteria, leading to destruction of the bowel and often requiring emergency surgery or death.

The condition poses a particularly high risk for premature and low-birth weight infants, where studies have shown that baby formula causes NEC at alarming rates, compared to breast feeding. However, Similac and Enfamil have each introduced and marketed versions of their formula in recent years that are specifically intended for premature babies, without providing warnings about the NEC risk.

In a study published in November, Canadian researchers warned that preterm and low birth weight infants given cow’s milk-based formula were three times as likely to be transferred to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for suspected NEC than those given donor milk.

Similar findings were published in October in the medical journal Nutrients, which found that breast milk was the “gold standard” for nutritional support during infancy, with antimicrobial and bioactive factors which helped prevent NEC.

Abbott Laboratories and Mead Johnson face a growing number of NEC formula lawsuits being filed by parents, each raising similar factual allegations that marketing by the manufacturers caused these formulas to displace breast milk that infants would have otherwise received, robbing them of a primary defense against NEC.


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