SWITZERLAND – A new World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF report has detailed exploitative practices used by the US$55 billion formula industry, compromising child nutrition and violating international commitments.

More than half of parents and pregnant women (51 percent) polled for a new WHO/UNICEF report say formula milk companies have targeted them with marketing, much of which violates international standards on infant feeding practices.

The report, How Formula Milk Marketing Influences Our Infant Feeding Decisions, is based on interviews with parents, pregnant women, and health workers in eight countries.

It reveals systematic and unethical marketing strategies used by the formula milk industry, which is now worth an estimated US$55 billion, to influence parents’ infant feeding decisions.

According to the report, industry marketing techniques include unregulated and invasive online targeting, sponsored advice networks and helplines, promotions and free gifts, and practices to influence health worker training and recommendations.

The messages received by parents and health workers are frequently misleading, scientifically unsubstantiated, and in violation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) – a landmark public health agreement passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.

Alarmingly, the report notes that the baby feeding industry approached a large number of health workers in all countries to influence their recommendations to new mothers.

Invasive marketing

This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.”

The report polled 8,500 parents and pregnant women, as well as 300 health workers in cities across Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

The report’s findings show that exposure to formula milk marketing reaches 84 percent of all women polled in the United Kingdom, 92 percent of women polled in Vietnam, and 97 percent of women polled in China, increasing their likelihood of choosing formula feeding.

False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a substantial barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

We need robust policies, legislation and investments in breastfeeding to ensure that women are protected from unethical marketing practices – and have access to the information and support they need to raise their families.”

Women expressed a strong desire to exclusively breastfeed in all countries included in the survey, ranging from 49 percent in Morocco to 98 percent in Bangladesh.

Breastfeeding myths

Nonetheless, the report details how a steady stream of misleading marketing messages is reinforcing myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, as well as undermining women’s confidence in their ability to successfully breastfeed.

These myths include the need for formula in the first few days after birth, the inadequacy of breast-milk for infant nutrition, the belief that specific infant formula ingredients improve child development or immunity, the belief that formula keeps infants fuller for longer, and the belief that the quality of breast-milk declines with time.

Alarmingly, the report notes that the baby feeding industry approached a large number of health workers in all countries to influence their recommendations to new mothers.

They achieved this through promotional gifts, free samples, research funding, paid meetings, events, and conferences, and even sales commissions, directly influencing parents’ feeding choices.

More than one-third of the women polled said a health professional had recommended a particular brand of formula to them.

To address these issues, WHO, UNICEF, and partners are urging governments, health workers, and the baby food industry to stop exploitative formula milk marketing and fully implement and adhere to the Code requirements.

Formula milk and tobacco are the only two products for which international marketing bans exist, in this case via the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Liked this article? Sign up to receive our regular email newsletters, focused on Africa and World’s healthcare industry, directly into your inbox. SUBSCRIBE HERE