Ads masquerading as “information”: more infant formula company hijinks

Edited to add (20 Oct 07): The Australian “Natural Parenting” website is now plastered with Wyeth formula advertisements, including on its front page. Way to go, NP. I’m glad to see they’re haemorrhaging members over it, but sorry to see long-term community having to uproot and move elsewhere. NP’s new and strangely-appropriate Zombie-Hands! logo:


Further edit 25 Oct 2007: Susan Stark has pledged to have the formula advertisements expunged from the Natural Parenting website. As of right now, they’re still there. I plan to update if the situation changes.


As momentum gathers very slowly to limit aggressive marketing by infant formula companies, formula companies are fighting back. Their tired line is that their advertising material is “information”, and that restrictions on it deprives mothers of essential facts they need when making a decision about infant feeding. I won’t go into detail debunking this; anyone who is paying attention knows that it’s all kinds of bullshit, and Mike Brady at the Boycott Nestle blog has been painstakingly detailing some of the more egregious examples under the UK Law campaign tag, if you’re interested.

Breastfeeding advocates recently lost ground in one battle in the Philippines this week when a ban on WHO-Code-violating formula ads was lifted (though some restrictions remain in place). The International Herald Tribune reports:

The Supreme Court last year imposed a temporary ban on the stiffer rules after the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, which includes major milk producers, argued that only Congress has the power to change the regulations.

During oral arguments in June, the attorney for the association, Felicitas Aquino-Arroyo, told the court that the Health Department went beyond its authority.

She said U.S.-based formula makers Wyeth, Mead Johnson Nutritionals and Abbott Laboratories, along with British-based GlaxoSmithKline, would lose about US$208 million (€148 million) if they were forced to change labels and destroy milk products already in circulation if a Health Department proposal to ban advertisements for formula made for children aged up to 2 years was approved.

And she argued the advertising ban deprived women of information that would allow them to freely choose whether to use formula.

For more background on the Philippines campaign, check out the Boycott Nestle blog‘s Philippines tag.

The Philippines has been a major target for infant formula advertisers, with Nestle USA, Abbot, Wyeth and Mead Johnson all players in the market. CRIN says:

Filipino mothers spend about US$469 million annually on infant formula, while multinational milk companies spent nearly $89 million on advertising – not inclusive of the travel, sponsorship and other perks they often provide to health professionals who promote their products.

Statistics show the milk companies’ advertisements have trumped UNICEF’s public-service announcements. As of 2003, only 16 per cent of the 2 million babies born in the country were exclusively breast-fed for at least four to five months. More recently, the Philippines had the lowest breast-feeding rate among 56 countries in a demographic health survey monitoring behaviors over the past 10 years.

Health experts, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Philippine Health Department, attribute as many as 16,000 infant mortalities per year in the Philippines from infections and diseases associated with using breast-milk substitutes rather than breast-feeding during an infant’s first six months.

Those hospital and health professional perks are not to be underestimated. A 2001 study, “Determinants of breastfeeding in the Philippines: a survival analysis“, found that the major determinants of infant feeding practice in the Philippines included prenatal care by a doctor and birth in a hospital. How much breastfeeding withdrawal is due to formula promotions in Filipino hospitals is anyone’s guess.

Hospital formula promotions have also been under the microscope in the USA, with the Ban The Bags campaign fighting an uphill battle against the promotion of artificial feeding by health professionals who are violating their ethical principles of doing no harm. Is there any other hospital setting where the staff routinely hand out corporate marketing samples at all, let alone samples proven to undermine healthful options? Yet, for some reason, the freebie-formula culture is so entrenched in US hospital culture that moves to do away with this advertising has met with vehement opposition. Grassroots opposition? Well, it looks like it from a distance, but up close? Not so much.

One site masquerading as grassroots support and information is momsfeedingfreedom dot com. (I’m not linking to them; no SEO opportunities here.) “MomsFeedingFreedom dot com”, they write, “is an opportunity to speak up for all moms.” The site admits that it is funded by a grant from industry body the International Formula Council, but goes on to claim independence: “The opinions and views expressed on this web site are of Kate Kahn who independently manages and controls the editorial content contained on the web site.” For all their cant about freedom and choices, however, MomsFeedingFreedom are deleting certain threads and comments and carefully managing the information presented, as reported by Ban the Bags – where you can see the deleted comments for yourself.

Peggy O’Mara at touches on the issue in “Is Breastfeeding in Trouble?” , and PRWatch mentions another pretend-“informational” site,, again funded by the International Formula Council. Even attachment parenting guru Dr Sears is advertising goat’s milk company Meyenberg. How many more are there?

Certainly, mainstream Australian parenting sites have been spinning cash from formula and bottle company advertisements, often in breach of the WHO Code. Essential Baby is plastered with borderline (“toddler milk”) ads and has featured violating bottle ads. BellyBelly has hosted large front-page Nestle ads in the past, but no longer does so. And kudos go to to Bubhub for rescinding its November 2006 contract with Dr Brown’s and apologising for placing violating ads all over its forums, including in breastfeeding and pregnancy information areas. Bubhub has since pledged to abide by the full Code (not just the very watered-down MAIF agreement) in its relationships with advertisers. Bounty has been another Code-breaking collaborator until very recently. When the lad was born in 2002, my in-hospital New Mother Bounty bag “gift” included a Gerber Nuk teat sample. Bounty only went “breastfeeding friendly” in April 2007.

Report your ad sightings and spin sites here.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, health

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