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Reports by experts slam ‘underhand, exploitative’ milk formula marketing

Millions of women are being prevented from breastfeeding because of “exploitative” and “underhand” marketing of formula milk, according to a series of reports published in The Lancet.

The Lancet 2023 Series on Breastfeeding, written by 25 experts from 12 countries, including paediatricians, public health specialists, scientists, economists and midwives, said commercial milk formula companies “exploit parents’ emotions and manipulate scientific information to generate sales at the expense of the health and rights of families, women and children”.

Breastfeeding promotes brain development, protects infants against malnutrition, infectious diseases and death, while also reducing risks of obesity and chronic diseases in later life, and later, helps protect mothers against breast and ovarian cancers.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months and giving breast milk alongside solid food until the age of two or beyond.

The Guardian reports that despite these lifelong health benefits to both mother and baby, more infants are fed formula milk than ever before.

The “economic and political power” of the dominant formula milk companies and countries’ “public policy failures” mean that fewer than half of infants globally are breastfed as recommended, The Lancet reports found.

Over three reports, the series reveals how, more than 40 years since the World Health Assembly developed a voluntary international code prohibiting the marketing of infant formula, widespread violation of the code persists, with promotion of infant formula milk continuing in about 100 countries worldwide since the code was adopted.

The series highlights the growing role of social media, with industry-paid influencers sharing the difficulties of breastfeeding as preludes to formula milk marketing, and industry-sponsored parenting apps with 24/7 chat services enabling product placement, offering free samples or deals, and promoting online sales.

“There is no other food product for which there is an international code of marketing. Infant feeding affects survival, lifelong health and child development. That makes how it is sold different from deciding what fridge or running shoe to buy,” said Dr Nigel Rollins, a co-author of the series and a paediatrician in the department of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health at the WHO.

“The sale of commercial milk formula is a multi-billion dollar industry using political lobbying alongside a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook to turn the care and concern of parents and caregivers into a business opportunity. It is time for this to end.”

The authors have called for an international legal treaty to regulate lobbying and the commercial marketing of infant formula milk to protect the health and well-being of mothers and families.

A spokesperson for the British Specialist Nutrition Association, the trade body representing the companies producing infant formula milk in the UK, said: “We support the WHO Code and agree that breastfeeding is important for infant health. Our members protect and promote breastfeeding.

“For many babies, infant formula is life-saving and life-sustaining. When parents are unable to or choose not to breastfeed, a scientifically developed infant formula is the only food recognised by the WHO as a suitable and safe alternative to breastmilk.”


The Lancet Series on Breastfeeding (Open access)


The Guardian article – ‘Underhand’ formula milk ads stop millions from breastfeeding, experts say (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Health professionals targeted by formula milk companies to push products


Formula feeding linked to 70% higher antibiotic-resistance genes in babies


Breastfeeding improves cognitive skills for children of poorer mothers – UK study


UK urged to improve its very low breastfeeding rates





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