Health experts call for end to “exploitative baby formula marketing tactics”

Feb 8, 2023, 12:30 PM | Updated: 12:31 pm
baby formula...
FILE: The report from health experts at institutions around the world says that commercial milk formula sales tactics violate the international code on breastfeeding marketing and calls for stricter government regulation of irresponsible baby formula marketing and industry interference. (Adobe Stock via CNN)
(Adobe Stock via CNN)
Originally Published: 07 FEB 23 18:30 ET
Updated: 08 FEB 23 11:15 ET

(CNN) — Less than half of infants around the world are breastfed as recommended.  And baby formula is in high demand despite failing to offer the same health and developmental benefits as breast milk, experts say. According to a new report, misleading claims and political influence are to blame.

The report from global health experts says that commercial milk formula sales tactics violate the international code on breastfeeding marketing. It calls for stricter government regulation of irresponsible baby formula marketing. It also calls for widespread industry interference.

The three-paper series, published Tuesday in the medical journal The Lancet, extensively outlines “predatory tactics” in the formula milk marketing industry. The research also highlights the need for stronger maternity protections, such as universal paid maternity leave, to support breastfeeding for all women.

“The sale of commercial milk formula is a multi-billion-dollar industry which uses political lobbying alongside a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook to turn the care and concern of parents and caregivers into a business opportunity,” Dr. Nigel Rollins, a scientist with the World Health Organization and co-author of the series, said in a news release. “It is time for this to end. Women should be empowered to make choices about infant feeding which are informed by accurate information free from industry influence.”

The Utah Angle: Shortage of baby formula continues to worry parents

CNN has reached out to the Infant Nutrition Council of America, a trade group representing formula marketers, for comment.

The report comes as more children than ever are being fed formula and as climate, political and economic crises repeatedly threaten global supply. The US is still recovering from a monthslong shortage of infant formula that stressed families and may spark sweeping changes at the US Food and Drug Administration. Other countries have faced similar supply chain disruptions caused by events like flooding South Africa, war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic — events that companies capitalized on to garner more donations and customers, according to the report.

The authors acknowledge that formula is necessary for some women who choose not to or who can’t breastfeed and note that criticisms of the commercial milk formula industry should be not be interpreted as criticism of women.

Misleading, exploitative baby formula marketing

Research has shown that breastfeeding promotes infant brain development, prevents malnutrition and sudden infant death syndrome, and lowers the risk of infectious diseases, chronic diseases and leukemia later in life. For mothers, breastfeeding helps lose pregnancy weight and lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and breast and ovarian cancer.

Universal breastfeeding would save an estimated 823,000 infant and 98,000 maternal lives annually, according to research published in The Lancet and Health Policy and Planning.

The authors of the new report note that “perceived pressure, or inability, to breastfeed — especially if it is at odds with a mother’s wishes — can have a detrimental effect on mental health, and systems should be in place to fully support all mothers in their choices.” They emphasize, however, that women make infant feeding decisions based on the information they receive, and they say this information should be accurate and free from commercial influence.

Despite evidence of its benefits, global breastfeeding rates have increased very little over the past two decades while baby formula sales have nearly doubled, reaching $55.6 billion in 2019, amid misleading marketing strategies that the authors say undermine breastfeeding.

“One of the factors, which is a main focus of the series, is the very misleading and exploitative marketing from infant formula companies that use messaging about the benefits of their products without almost any scientific basis whatsoever, essentially sending a message that infant formulas are similar to, if not even better than, breastfeeding for the health and well-being of the babies,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and a co-author of the report.

The report also explains how companies exploit parental anxieties about their children’s health and development in the vulnerable newborn period. Companies often suggest that common infant adaptations such as fussiness, colic or short nighttime sleep duration are signs of breastfeeding issues that formula can fix.

“Formula companies use these behaviors and present them as problematic and basically lead people towards using products as the solution to problems that may, in fact, not be problems at all but part of normal human developmental behavior,” said co-author Cecilia Tomori, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

Experts emphasize that with appropriate education and support, such concerns can be managed appropriately with breastfeeding.

Dr. Susan Crowe, a Stanford University School of Medicine ob/gyn and lactation specialist who was not involved with the report, says she tells her patients that “the purpose of these ads is to sell formula” so they are “aware that these companies are there primarily to make a profit. Sometimes just letting them know that they’ve been exposed to advertising is helpful.”

These misleading and unsubstantiated scientific claims, experts say, violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, a landmark agreement put into place in 1981 that aims to regulate unethical marketing practices to ensure that mothers are not discouraged from breastfeeding and that substitutes are used safely if needed.

Unlike most World Health Organization member countries, the United States does not legally enforce any provisions of the code.

“The US does not regulate [baby formula] marketing at all. Everything goes in terms of the marketing of infantry and formulas,” said Perez-Escamilla, who urges the FDA and Congress to intervene.

The report also says that baby formula companies’ influence extends far beyond marketing, including lobbying against vital breastfeeding support measures, incentivizing physicians to recommend their products to new mothers and funding research that supports their marketing agenda.

One study by WHO and the United Nations Children’s Foundation surveyed 8,500 women worldwide and found that more than a third said a health care worker recommended a specific brand of formula to them.

“It is, as a whole, a very powerful system of lobbying, of capturing scientists, of capturing health care providers and, at the end of the day, capturing families themselves with their products by really exploiting the fears of families and parents during a very vulnerable psychoemotional time,” Perez-Escamilla said.

A call for society-wide changes to baby formula marketing

The study authors call for actions across governments, workplaces and health care to support women who want to breastfeed.

The report calls for extending paid maternity leave to align with the recommended six-month duration of exclusive breastfeeding. WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months and continued support for breastfeeding to age 2 or longer.

Paid maternity leave has been shown to increase breastfeeding exclusivity and duration. However, according to the new report, more than half a billion working women globally lack adequate maternity protection. Most of them are lower-income and women of color who are forced to go back to work out of financial necessity.

The report’s authors say that formula milk marketing “exploits the lack of support for breastfeeding by governments and society” by framing breastfeeding as a “moralistic judgment, while presenting milk formula as a convenient and empowering solution for working mothers.”

The US is the only high-income country without federally mandated paid maternity leave. Although more than 80% of mothers in the US start off breastfeeding, less than a quarter exclusively breastfeed their baby at 6 months, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2011, the US Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding identified the lack of paid maternity leave as a significant barrier to breastfeeding and argued that “paid leave is necessary to reduce the differential effect of employment on breastfeeding among disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and economic groups, which in turn would allow disadvantaged populations to benefit from the health effects of breastfeeding.”

The report’s authors also highlight the need for expansion in health professional training on breastfeeding. Namely, offering skilled counseling before and after birth to all mothers who wish to breastfeed. This includes guidance and support for mothers who are unable to breastfeed due to limited milk production or medical reasons, such as active HIV infection.

“Initiation of breastfeeding and lactation support is tremendously helpful so that people can understand normal volumes and intervene with supplementation only when medically necessary,” Crowe said.

The authors note the importance of supporting a woman’s choice regarding breastfeeding and emphasize the need for systemic policies free from unregulated baby formula marketing, lobbying and influence to allow families to make informed decisions on infant feeding.

“We are asking for social support, structural social support from governments and systems to help people achieve their breastfeeding goals,” Tomori said. “We want to make sure that they understand that it is not up to individual women and mothers to do breastfeeding. That it’s actually their right, and it is part of health as a human right that they have all the support and the enabling environments that they deserve.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

United States

More stores now offer customers the option to tip, from coffee shops to ice cream stores. Around 48...
Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Americans facing a radically different tipping culture

People are tipping less of inflation, and they are also overwhelmed with the number of places that give them the option to tip with a card
19 hours ago
Pennsylvania cany factory explosion...
Sara Smart, Samantha Beech, Zoe Sottile and Dakin Andone, CNN

Death toll from Pennsylvania candy factory explosion climbs to 4

A fourth person has been confirmed dead in an explosion at an eastern Pennsylvania candy factory, as rescue crews continue to search for three others.
2 days ago
In his first appearance before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers ...
Catherine Thorbecke, CNN

TikTok CEO: 5 takeaways from his first appearance before Congress

TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers who expressed deep skepticism about his company's attempts to protect US user data.
5 days ago
A 24-year-old Pennsylvania woman who barged into then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office during th...
Holmes Lybrand and Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

Riley Williams, US Capitol rioter, sentenced to three years in prison

Riley Williams was convicted for resisting or impeding an officer, civil disorder, and disorderly conduct on Jan. 6, 2021.
5 days ago
FILE - A hiring sign is in front of a Target store in Manchester, Conn., Nov. 39, 2021. (AP Photo/T...
MATT OTT AP Business Writer

US jobless claims inch down as labor market remains tight

Jobless claims in the U.S. for the week ending March 18 fell by 1,000 to 191,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday.
5 days ago
Utah's Attorney General has sent a letter to the federal government claiming climate investing, or ...
Lindsay Aerts

Utah AG claims ESG or ‘climate investing’ contributed to SVB collapse

The AG's office believes Silicon Valley Bank, SVB, made "speculative sustainability investments," involving ESG in the solar industry.
6 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Cheerful young woman writing an assignment while sitting at desk between two classmates during clas...
BYU EMBA at the Marriott School of Business

Hear it Firsthand: 6 Students Share Their Executive MBA Experience at BYU’s Marriott School of Business

The Executive MBA program at BYU offers great opportunities. Hear experiences straight from students enrolled in the program.
Skier being towed by a rider on a horse. Skijoring....
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking for a new winter activity? Try skijoring in Bear Lake

Skijoring is when someone on skis is pulled by a horse, dog, animal, or motor vehicle. The driver leads the skiers through an obstacle course over jumps, hoops, and gates.
Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five common causes of Cervical Cancer – and what you can do to lower your risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get ready for fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy.
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...

15 easy Christmas dinner ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Health experts call for end to “exploitative baby formula marketing tactics”