The commercial milk formula (CMF) industry uses marketing tactics similar to those of the tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food industries.
Earlier this winter, the Lancet published a three-paper series outlining the multifaceted and highly effective strategies used by commercial formula manufacturers to target parents, health-care professionals, and policy-makers.
“The industry’s dubious marketing practices—in breach of the breastfeeding Code—are compounded by lobbying of governments, often covertly via trade associations and front groups, against strengthening breastfeeding protection laws and challenging food standard regulations,” the Lancet summarizes.
In another recent publication, Pediatricians’ Reports of Interaction with Infant Formula Companies, the authors found that: “Of 200 participants, the majority reported a formula company representative visit to their clinic (85.5%) and receiving free formula samples (90%). Representatives were more likely to visit areas with higher-income patients (median = $100K versus $60K, p < 0.001). They tended to visit and sponsor meals for pediatricians at private practices and in suburban areas. Most of the reported conferences attended (64%) were formula company-sponsored.”
The authors write that “Seventy percent of countries follow the World Health Organization International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes that prohibits infant formula companies (IFC) from providing free products to health care facilities, providing gifts to health care staff, or sponsoring meetings. The United States rejects this code, which may impact breastfeeding rates in certain areas.”
The Lancet series authors provide recommendations to restrict the marketing of CMF to protect the health and wellness of mothers and babies, and ultimately society and the planet.
Curtail the power and political activities of the CMF industry
End state practices that do not uphold, or that violate, the rights of women and children
Recognise, resource, and redistribute women’s care work burdens in support of breastfeeding
Address structural deficiencies and commercial conflicts of interest in health systems
Increase public finance and correct the misalignment between private and public interests
Mobilise and resource advocacy coalitions to generate political commitment for breastfeeding
In Mexico, UNICEF and Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública have designed infographics for policymakers as well as parents and caregivers to educate on the impact of digital marketing.
The partners are also working on proposed modifications to current Mexican regulations that involve commercial formula milk and ultra processed food marketing to infants and young children. Further, development is underway for a mobile app tool for monitoring the Code in Mexico.
In other efforts to protect parents and babies, Breastfeeding Advocacy Australia released a video on how the organization monitors predatory marketing. Find it here. You can find their Facebook group here.
–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…” When we initially curated this series, we planned for 10 weeks, but breastfeeding is so many things that we just couldn’t fit it all in, which means we have two bonus weeks in our anniversary series.–
Breastfeeding is ours. Breastfeeding belongs to us.
For decades, the 55 billion dollar formula milk industry has positioned itself as an ally to parents.
Far before the advent of formula milks and their subsequent marketing campaigns, breastfeeding sustained the human species. When breastfeeding wasn’t possible, wet nursing was the primary alternative feeding option. [Stevens, et al 2009]
For generations, cultures across the globe have honored breastfeeding as a central part of their identities, and now they’re reclaiming these traditions after being challenged by the formula milk industry and other forces.
Cuni offers commentary on her and her colleague’s responsibility to help facilitate breastfeeding without capitalizing, claiming and dominating. She sees her role as an empowerer.
Without diminishing the need for larger structural supports, let us also remember and celebrate the innate power we hold as individuals who can nourish and nurture our young and ourselves through breastfeeding.
Our 10-year anniversary giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!
In an eerie parallel, WHO’s February 2022 report, How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding, states that “Recommendations from health professionals are a key channel of formula milk marketing. Health professionals spoke of receiving commissions from sales, funding for research, promotional gifts, samples of infant and specialized formula milk products, or invitations to seminars, conferences and events.” (p. 7)
Last week, Nikki Lee, RN, BSN, MS, Mother of 2, IBCLC,RLC, CCE, CIMI, CST (cert.appl.), ANLC, RYT500 and I shared our reflection on the forces that shape physicians’ personal infant feeding experiences. In this second installment, we explore how physicians as professionals can support breastfeeding despite being targeted by the breastmilk substitute (BMS) industry and despite generally being woefully equipped with proper lactation education, training and counseling skills. These predicaments can lead physicians to “explicitly or inadvertently, introduce doubts around the ability of women to breastfeed and the value and quality of their breast milk.” (WHO, p. 12)
Pervasive industry influence for generations
Because “health professionals are among the most respected and trusted members of society…[their] advice…is highly influential for pregnant women and parents of infants and young children, including around infant feeding decisions.” Formula milk companies exploit this relationship of trust. (WHO, p. 12)
BMS representatives target physicians “with a range of incentives, including funding for research, commissions from sales, ambassadorial roles, merchandise, gifts and all expenses paid promotional trips.” (WHO, p.13)
The psychology behind gift-giving, both big and small is that “ it imposes…a sense of indebtedness…. The…rule of reciprocity imposes…an obligation to repay for favors, gifts and invitations…” (Katz 2003) Instead of supporting infant feeding purely through a health and wellness lens, physicians feel obliged to a company muddying their relationships with their patients.
Interestingly, most physicians feel immune to marketing’s influence, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Frederick S. Sierles, MD lays out in The Gift-Giving Influence.
Our culture fails to acknowledge the mother baby unit as a dyad, and this influences the way physicians can support breastfeeding too.
“We are never taught, in our fragmented system, that the mother and baby are a unit,” Lee reiterates. “OB/GYN/midwife sees mama; peds sees babies. There are even different places for them in the hospital: nursery, postpartum unit. What a struggle we had with the BFHI to keep mother and baby together.”
The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health’s (AIM) Patient Safety Bundles offer models for how health professionals can use task force approaches that break down silos of care and open channels of communication. The strategies used in these bundles aim to ultimately shift from fractured care to continuity of care where the dyad is protected.
We must also consider how physicians are compensated for their work. In the current U.S. healthcare system, physicians find themselves paid in Relative Value Units (RVUs), which bluntly put, is a pretty mechanical way to value providing care to other humans, as we mentioned in our first installment. In short, the more RVUs a physician racks up, the more they’re paid. Breastfeeding counseling takes time.
How are physicians to spend time with their patients, educating and supporting breastfeeding when they’ve had little to no breastfeeding education invested in them? Dr. Nigel Campbell Rollinspointed out in WHO’s How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding webinar that faculty in medical schools themselves sometimes believe that formula products are inevitable or necessary.
Often, it is a physician’s own struggle to breastfeed that seems to spur advocacy and change. Our Milky Way’s repository includes a breadth of physicians’ stories of personal struggles that have inspired them to become breastfeeding champions for their patients and communities.
“There was no training about [breastfeeding] technique, no discussion about common problems before discharge, no training about clinical problems as far as in the first few months postpartum…when to introduce complementary food,” she continues.
We are honored to have been able to feature the work of the late Audrey Naylor in Commendable contributions to the field of lactation. With a lifetime interest in illness prevention, Naylor said she was quickly convinced of the power of breastfeeding after only attending a few hours of a breastfeeding seminar in 1976.
“Neither medical school nor pediatric residency taught me anything about breastfeeding,” Naylor said.
“It is easy to become frustrated with nurses and physicians who – often inadvertently sabotage breastfeeding mothers and babies, but I also sympathize,” she explains. “We are in a position where we are supposed to have answers, but no one has taught us the skills necessary to provide those answers.”
Other stories and models for care
Lori Feldman-Winter’s, et al Residency curriculum improves breastfeeding care showed that “a targeted breastfeeding curriculum for residents in pediatrics, family medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology improves knowledge, practice patterns, and confidence in breastfeeding management in residents and increases exclusive breastfeeding in their patients. Implementation of this curriculum may similarly benefit other institutions.
As part of their work to build a cohort of breastfeeding-friendly pediatricians, the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Georgia Breastfeeding Coalition launched a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician Interest Form.” Georgia pediatricians who are interested in becoming certified as a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician” are invited to fill out the form.
Q: What would you consider your greatest triumph with IBFAN?
A: I am not sure I could speak of triumph, at the end of the day my time with IBFAN was quite short and all I did was trying to keep up with the amazing work that has been done by the Geneva office for the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the achievements with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as during my time with IBFAN, “breastfeeding” was mentioned in almost all concluding observations.
Q: In November 2019, you had the opportunity to present IBFAN’s Green Feeding documents. What was that like? How was it received by participants at the World Breastfeeding Conference?
A: It was an incredible experience, it was an honor to prepare this with Alison Linnecar, who wrote the document and to present it along with experts in the field. I don’t think that I can define myself as an expert, let alone a breastfeeding expert, but I am starting a career in advocacy. I therefore decided that I wanted to emphasize how the Green Feeding Documents could be used as an advocacy tool from an environmental perspective. Therefore, while Alison explained the science behind all of it, I focused on the link between breastfeeding and human rights, more in particular how it can be used in relation to the right to a safe, healthy environment. At the end of the presentation, I was so happy to see that most people in the audience wanted a copy of the green feeding documents…I thought that 30 copies would be enough, but clearly, I was wrong! I wish I had brought more.
A: I believe that from a political perspective, two things are holding us back: The first being the patriarchy and political systems dominated by men. As long as women will not be allowed to play a greater role in global health governance and domestic politics, public health issues such as breastfeeding or issues surrounding menstrual health will not be given the right amount of attention.
The second element is political will, which is deeply related to the first. Breastfeeding is only seen as a public health issue in developing countries, and aggressive marketing from the formula industry has managed to convince women themselves that they are actually more empowered if they don’t breastfeed. Breastfeeding is thus seen as a weight imposed on them rather than a right that should be protected, promoted and supported by governments. In some societies, it is indeed currently a real hurdle for women to achieve their breastfeeding goals but instead of women in their breastfeeding journeys benefiting from policies, they are given a bottle. I am of the idea that improved breastfeeding policies are not only a matter of public health but also of women’s rights.
Q: Any advice on how to navigate a climate where people dispute basic facts?
A: That is a very difficult question…Especially because those disputing basic facts are often deeply attached to their position and will give you alternative “facts”…I believe very much in trusted sources, and would always advise these people to check their sources and question them. For instance, if someone shows me an article from the industry containing “facts on breastfeeding” I would draw their attention on why this article could be biased and not based on adequate scientific evidence.
Q: Breastfeeding is a topic that spans across all disciplines. Will you please give us a glimpse into the work you’re doing at The Right Livelihood?
A: The Right Livelihood Foundation honors and supports courageous people solving global problems, in all disciplines. IBFAN is actually one of them. With civil society space shrinking all over the world, human rights defenders are facing increasing difficulties, which is very true also for breastfeeding advocates. My work at the foundation therefore consists in using the advocacy skills that I developed with IBFAN, to support laureates all over the world.
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