Marketing of formula milk preventing breastfeeding of infants

3-part Lancet paper finds exploitative market thrives despite WHO recommendations, violating World Health Assembly code 

By Taran Deol
Published: Friday 10 February 2023
WHO noted formula milk companies made false promises by directly (exploiting) parental anxieties around normal infant behaviours, suggesting that commercial milk products alleviate fussiness or crying. Photo: iStock

Only half the infants in the world consume breast milk in the first hour of life despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations. Less than half are exclusively fed breast milk for the first six months of life as well.

The marketing tactics of the formula milk industry are to be blamed, found a three-part series of papers published in the journal The Lancet February 7, 2023. 

Read more: 'We need to promote the culture of donating breast milk'

Formula milk companies are violating the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code), developed by the World Health Assembly in 1981, the paper said. The catalyst was the 1970s Baby Killer investigative report into Nestle’s marketing of formula milk in low- and middle-income countries. 

The companies make false promises by “directly (exploiting) parental anxieties around normal infant behaviours, suggesting that commercial milk products alleviate fussiness or crying, for instance, that they help with colic, or prolong night-time sleep,” the WHO noted. 

Formula milk sales are bringing in as high a revenue as $55 billion (Rs 4.5 lakh crore) a year, thanks to their dubious tactics.

“The formula milk industry uses poor science to suggest, with little supporting evidence, that their products are solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges,” said professor Linda Richter from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

“This marketing technique violates the 1981 Code, which says labels should not idealise the use of the formula to sell more product,” Richter added. 

Formula milk companies bank on the lack of breastfeeding support and misuse gender politics to target families, health professionals and science and policy processes, the paper said.

One of the studies in the three-part series, titled Marketing of commercial milk formula: a system to capture parents, communities, science, and policy, argued: “multifaceted, well-resourced marketing strategies that portray CMF (commercial milk formula) products, with little or no supporting evidence, as solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges in ways that systematically undermine breastfeeding.” 

The companies have a tailored approach for parents depending on what they are seeking; concerned primarily with future aspirations and ambitions for their infants; those who are primarily concerned about ensuring the infant is happy today; and cocooning, protective parents. 

CMF companies use health professionals as “category entry points” and take over science by using arbitrary evidence and misrepresented research.

Read more: Not close enough: What India needs to keep in mind this World Breastfeeding Week

While CMF companies resort to multiple, faulty routes to make their sale, the current environment of women’s care work — such as breastfeeding — is blindsided by economic policies and systems.

A health system lacking in breastfeeding protection, promotion and support lacunae only make the jobs of these firms easier.

“This new research highlights the vast economic and political power of the big formula milk companies, as well as serious public policy failures that prevent millions of people from breastfeeding their children,” said professor Nigel Rollins, scientist at WHO and author of a paper on formula milk marketing. 

“Actions are needed across different areas of society to support parents better to breastfeed for as long as they want, alongside efforts to tackle exploitative formula milk marketing once and for all,” Rollins added.

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