Friday, August 24, 2007

Yes to information - no to propaganda

I wrote earlier this week about criticism of the baby food industry in the Philippines by the Department of Health, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation for its misrepresentation of data on breastfeeding rates in the country and failure to provide essential information on infant formula labels to reduce risks of its use. See:

Today I have learned of a campaign in the Philippines that goes under the name 'Mothers Knows Best'. This campaign ignores the fact that marketing requirements for baby foods are intended to protect all mothers and babies, whether breastfeeding or using formula, and is trying to recruit mothers to petition for the proposed restrictions on advertising and misleading claims to be blocked. There is no disclosure of who is behind this campaign.

I have commented before about the way the call for international marketing standards to be implemented in the UK is sometimes misrepresented as an attack on mothers who use formula. The fact that formula companies here break our existing weak law by making misleading and idealizing claims while failing to give clear warnings on risks of formula and how to reduce them receives scant coverage in the media.

All we ask is that people look at the evidence that shows so clearly that company promotion is not providing information, but is aimed to increase sales. For a recent blog on this see:

It would not surprise me if we saw something like 'Mothers Know Best' appearing in the UK. In fact, we already have it. It is called Inform and is a front organisation for the baby food industry. We have exposed in the past how it has failed sometimes to reveal its connection to the companies, and how mothers who contacted it then received mailshots from formula companies. See:

Inform is, in truth, an initiative from Cow & Gate, Heinz Farley's, Milupa and SMA/Wyeth. The same Wyeth that is part of the legal attack on the regulations in the Philippines. This is what Inform says:

"INFORM fully supports breastfeeding as the best way to feed a baby but is concerned that mothers should receive good advice and education on formula feeding. Current legislation, adopted in 1995, has created an information gap in that women seeking information or advice on infant formula feeding or products have restricted access to that information. As a result they are often left feeling ill-informed and ill-equipped to bottle feed their baby safely and successfully."

Yeah, right. These are the same companies that have so far refused to put warnings on labels that powdered infant formula is not sterile and to give clear instructions on how to reduce the risks. It falls to organisations like Baby Milk Action and UNICEF to draw attention to how to make formula feeding safer. See:

In the Philippines 'Mothers Know Best' also says mothers should have better access to information. We certainly agree there needs to be better information for parents. But it is serving the industry not mothers and babies to suggest that is achieved through striking down the regulations introduced by the Ministry of Health last year.

This is how 'Mothers Know Best' presents the issue:

---Quote begins
In recent weeks we have seen demands from WHO, UNICEF and other activist groups for a complete ban on advertising of products for children under 2 as well as "an absolute ban on false health and nutritional claims." This outcry comes as these groups are finding it difficult to succeed with their programs to increase the popularity and rate of breastfeeding throughout the Philippines. Unfortunately, it also appears to be a campaign dangerously driven by politics. The campaign to blame companies that produce safe, healthy infant formula for child nutrition problems is bad for Filipino mothers and their infants for three reasons:

1. It amounts to government censorship on information for mothers. We need more education on nutrition for infants, not less.

2. It creates a stigma around formula and will encourage the use of more dangerous supplements.

3. It diverts resources away from the true problem -- the barriers to breastfeeding for many women, such as the lack of accommodations in the workplace.

WHO and UNICEF are leading a charge to convince the world that people somehow believe that Breast milk is not the best nutrition for babies. We are not aware of anyone who believes that. What is wrong with this campaign is that they use patently false claims concerning formula that will have little real effect while they attack multinational corporations for political gains. They fail to face the reality that the government has failed to monitor advertising and enforce existing laws. It is easy to attack companies. Making real change that will have real impact is much harder. The end result is that instead of positive change, they demonize mothers who find that breastfeeding -- for one reason or another - -is not an option.
The real solution is:

1. Enforce Executive Order No 51. to bring manufacturers AND health workers and centres in line with the law.

2. New laws (and enforcement) to enable mothers to breastfeed in any location without fear of intimidation, retribution or criticism.

3. New laws to provide workplace accommodations for mothers to breastfeed with out danger of loosing their jobs and without fear of intimidation, retribution or criticism.

4. Education programs to demonstrate that Breast milk is indeed the best nutrition for babies along with information that properly utilized and prepared formula is the only second best choice.

The issue is not anti-advertising legislation. The issue is enforcement of existing legislation and new legislation to support the rights of mothers who choose to breastfeed while not stigmatizing mothers who chose formula.
---Quote ends

I certainly agree with their calls for enforcement of the existing law. As we have exposed on our Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet, Wyeth, Nestlé and the other companies systematically break the marketing requirements in the Philippines.

But calling for companies to abide by the marketing requirements adopted by the World Health Assembly over 25 years ago - as they are forced to in many countries that have implemented them in legislation - is not an attack on mothers who use formula. It is the opposite. It is respecting their right to accurate and independent information on infant feeding.

It is a right enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And it is a right that is abused by companies when they promote their own misleading claims, in the Philippines and the UK.

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes explicitly aims to ensure the safe use of breastmilk substitutes when these are necessary. It does not prevent their sale and it certainly does not encourage mothers to use unsafe alternatives. Nor does it compel mothers to breastfeed. The Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly are addressed to governments, companies, health workers and Non-Governmental Organisations.

Go back and watch the film produced by UNICEF Philippines. It shows the importance of giving parents accurate information and support as well as the need for stopping aggressive marketing.

If the industry uses front organisations and bogus arguments to try to get mothers to fight for its right to mislead them, then we should not really be surprised. It is very much in keeping with the way they put their own profits before the well being of babies and their families.

They conflate different issues to try to avoid necessary controls on their practices.

The same is happening in Australia, where a Senate Committee is calling for the International Code and Resolutions to be implemented.

This is from the Sidney Morning Herald.

---Extract begins

The most worrying promotion of formula is the constant exploitation of the normal anxieties that beset parents, particularly first-time parents, who may not have access to good information about what is and isn't normal in regards to baby health and behaviour. Specialised formulas cater to the 50 per cent of healthy babies who regurgitate, and there is a range of products designed for "crying" babies, "constipated" babies, "colicky" babies and babies who "won't sleep".

One company has even named its formulas after these conditions: Sweet Dreams, Anti-Constipation, Anti-Diarrhoea, and Anti-Colic. Labels such as these are not based on peer-reviewed scientific studies but marketing research. These tins of formula are often located in pharmacies in stands right near cash registers, positioned to catch the eyes of worried mothers.

Unrestricted advertising for products designed for babies over six months is still permitted in Australia. "Follow-on" formula and "toddler" formula are unnecessary products packaged in identical ways to infant formula.

At a recent Senate inquiry into breastfeeding, spokespeople for the Infant Formula Manufacturers Association of Australia expressed concern that the restrictions on advertising meant that families were not getting clear, objective information about infant formula.

---extract ends

It is the same strategy.

What is really needed is clear.

Yes to accurate, independent information. Yes, to support for mothers with breastfeeding. Yes, to accurate information on formula and how to reduce the risks for those who use it.

No to company propaganda.

The primary interest of companies - actually and legally - is their shareholders. Let us see them for what they are: commercial organisations aiming to grow their market.

Nestlé, for one, has promised significant year-on-year growth in the infant nutrition and every other sector. If they don't grow quickly enough they sell the business. And the shareholders, who are supposed to hold publicly hold companies to account, shout down anyone who questions their tactics. See:

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