Discouraging breastfeeding: 50% pregnant women, parents targeted by misleading baby food marketing

Sales of formula milk more than doubled in last 2 decades

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 23 February 2022

The sales of formula milk industry more than doubled in the last two decades and misleading campaigns targeted at pregnant women and new parents may be a major driving factor, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As much as 51 per cent of this population were targeted by invasive and scientifically unsubstantiated promotion messages by such companies, the WHO survey showed. 

The United Nations health agency noted: 

Exposure to formula milk marketing reaches 84 per cent of all women surveyed in the United Kingdom; 92 per cent of women surveyed in Viet Nam and 97 per cent of women surveyed in China, increasing their likelihood of choosing formula feeding.

The survey was conducted on 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 Viet Nam. 

Most of these campaigns go against the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from such practices. 

A majority of women surveyed were in favour of feeding only breast-milk to their infants, the survey found. The aggressive marketing campaigns of formula milk manufacturers are thus designed to undermine “women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully” by propagating misinformation about breast-milk. 

These myths included:

  • The necessity of formula in the first days after birth
  • The inadequacy of breast-milk for infant nutrition
  • That specific infant formula ingredients are proven to improve child development or immunity
  • The perception that formula keeps infants fuller for longer
  • That the quality of breast-milk declines with time.

Dispelling such myths, WHO advocated “exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond” after breastfeeding within the first hour of birth. 

This can help prevent child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity, and protect them against childhood illnesses while also reducing women’s future risk of diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer, the organisation noted. 

Only 44 per cent of babies less than six months old are exclusively breastfed, WHO shared. “Global breastfeeding rates have increased very little in the past two decades, while sales of formula milk have more than doubled in roughly the same time.” The industry is worth $55 billion (over Rs 4 lakh crore) at present.

Promotional gifts, free samples, funding for research, paid meetings, events and conferences, and even commissions from sales are some of the pervasive marketing techniques used to influence health workers to recommend particular brands to parents, the study found. More than a third of women surveyed reported to have encountered such suggestions from health workers. 

WHO, United Nations Children's Fund and other UN agencies called for formulating and enforcing laws to prohibit nutrition and health claims made by baby food companies during promotion of their products. 

Health workers should be advised to not receive sponsorship from such companies to prevent dissemination of misinformation. Policies to support breastfeeding and parental leave should also be developed, the organisations recommended. 

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