Should baby formula ads be banned?

"Aggressive" tactics have led to shifts in breast-feeding rates -- how can parents turn them around?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 24, 2014 10:40PM (UTC)
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(Oshvintsev Alexander via Shutterstock)

There was a time not so long ago when early infancy was defined by the formula companies, and the act of feeding a baby was in many places simply understood to mean giving a bottle. But we've now had decades of encouragement and support for new mothers to nurse instead, and steadily increasing breast-feeding rates in some countries show that can work. The percent of U.S. babies who are breast-fed in early infancy is 77 percent, and at 6 months, nearly half of all moms and babies are still at it. But in other places, the numbers aren't as impressive. In Australia, for example, only 39 percent of babies are exclusively breast-feeding at 3 months. In the effort to improve those numbers, though, is there a line between encouraging breast-feeding and limiting an industry that provides sustenance for those non-nursing families? And what's the distinction between helping and hindering?

As the Sydney Morning Herald reports Monday, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians is now pushing the government to enact a ban on "marketing, free sampling, gifts to health workers and pharmacy and supermarket promotion of formula for babies less than a year old." Susan Moloney, the president of the college's pediatric and child health division, told the paper that "We need legislation to block advertising of infant formula."


More than 80 nations have already adopted the World Health Organization's 33-year-old International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which calls for education on "the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding" and adequate product labeling, and advises that "Manufacturers and distributors should not provide, directly or indirectly, to pregnant women, mothers or members of their families, samples of products within the scope of this Code." The power of companies that don't adhere to it is intense. The Sydney Morning Herald notes that the Infant Formula Council currently "represents more than 95 per cent of the infant formula industry in Australia," without WHO-based restrictions.

But other countries have experimented with strict – and often inventive -- limits on marketing, for years. Two years ago, Sweden moved to ban photographs of babies from baby formula promotional materials, "to avoid idealizing use of the product." And it's been seven years since the U.K. launched its complete ban  on formula promotional materials, which had previously been distributed to new parents through the NHS. In 2011, China, which saw sales of formula double in a mere four years after "a hyper-aggressive push to get the emerging market hooked on infant formula," took steps to ban its country's "very seductive" formula advertising and promotions.

"Seductive" is the perfect word for the way formula companies operate. Three years ago, after a similarly "aggressive" push by the formula companies caused a drop in breast-feeding rates in the Philippines, the nation enacted restrictions on infant formula advertising. To boost its case, the World Health Organization released a study that showed Filipino mothers who'd been encouraged by advertising or doctor promotions to use infant formula were "two to four times more likely to feed their babies with those products ... despite poverty and extra strain on household income associated with formula use."


Breast-feeding is cheap; it's sanitary; it's convenient. Most of all, it's healthy. But for various reasons, not everyone can or wishes to do it, and families that opt for formula need support and clear, accurate information. In the conversation about formula, all of us need to remember that simple truth, and the difference between admittedly often aggressive industries and parents trying to make the best, most realistic decisions for themselves and their babies. Doesn't hurt to remember that in a time of global adoption and surrogacy, not all babies are born to the parents who will raise them or can provide home-grown milk for them. So in the effort to make formula companies behave ethically, let's be nice to parents too, of all varieties, just trying to get their babies to nosh right.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Advertising Breastfeeding Infant Formula Motherhood World Health Organization