Thursday, December 06, 2007

Minister doesn't listen to the question and gives wrong answers

As I wrote earlier in the week the UK Secretary of State for Health invited people to put questions to him in a live webchat, which took place today.

Great in theory, but a disappointment in practice. There were two really good questions about the government's proposed revision to the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations. The government has not followed the recommendations of health experts, including its own advisors. The proposed revisions are little better than the existing law, which is failing to protect mothers and their babies. This is not just about protecting breastfeeding, but also protecting babies fed on formula.

So two people wanted to know why the government wasn't providing this protection and wasn't implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions - the WHO International Code as some put it.

As you see from the exchange I have copied from the webchat and posted below, the Minister didn't answer the question. Instead of explaining why the expert recommendations to the government's consultation have been rejected, Mr Johnson simply explained about the flawed consultation!

---Webchat extract
Anita Cartlidge: Breastfeeding rates in England are amongst the lowest across the world. As a result children’s and women’s short term and long term health is suffering. Supporting Breastfeeding is mentioned in many health documents some several years old yet there has been no significant long term investment in supporting initiatives to increase breastfeeding rates. Why is the Government not following a similar model to Norway who had similar breastfeeding rates to us in the 1960's but due to a concerted whole systems approach to change now has breastfeeding initiation rates above 95% and high continuation rates? And why is the Government not implementing the full WHO Code on breastmilk substitutes. Thanks

Alan replies: Breastfeeding initiation rates have been rising across all socio-economic groups in the UK and currently stands at 78% in England. We have a commitment arising from our NHS Plan in 2000 to increase support for breastfeeding . Through schemes such as the National Breastfeeding Awareness Week, Healthy Start and working with UNICEF to encourage hospitals to implement Baby Friendly Initiative policies, we are looking both to incentivise and encourage women to breastfeed.

It's also important to mention the huge increase in statutory paid maternity leave from 14 weeks to 9 months under this government, recognising that if women have to return to work in the first six months, they cannot commit to breastfeeding.

Finally on the issue of milk substitutes, my Department and the Food Standards Agency have set out stricter controls on the promotion, labelling and composition of infant and follow-on formula milk.

barbara: If the government proposes to protect infants fed on formula milk, why then is it proposing only a voluntary agreement to improve the information on the labels with the formula companies rather than a mandatory requirement, since it is clear that the companies will not comply with such a request?

Alan replies: After consideration of all the comments received during a 12-week public consultation on infant formula regulations, we are proposing new measures which include updating the rules on the composition of all types of formula, tighter rules on labelling, tougher restrictions on advertising and robust guidance for industry and enforcement authorities to use to correctly apply this new law. The regulations will be laid before Parliament shortly with a view to being on the statute books by January 2008.
---webchat extract ends

What a disappointment! The question is why are the regulations to be laid before Parliament so bad! You can read more about response to the proposals and send a message to Mr. Johnson asking him to revise the regulations before they go to Parliament via our website at:

But great that the issue did make it into the discussion alongside the other health topics covered. Thank you to everyone who posted questions and made this an issue that the moderator allowed through.

Without regulations the efforts the government is putting into protecting and promoting breastfeeding will continue to have little impact. While Mr. Johnson is correct to state that initiation rates have increased, breastfeeding duration has barely changed, and in some regions is actually decreasing. Initation can be influenced by hospital practices, such as UNICEF Baby Friendly, but once outside hospital the marketing efforts of the baby food industry have greater impact.

And the fact is, that expenditure on promotion by the baby food industry is increasing, while government expenditure on breastfeeding promotion is decreasing. Here is an extract from my talk during National Breastfeeding Awareness Week:

The advertising spend for baby foods: £7,626,847 in 2006/07 according to Nielsen Research Multimedia. That’s an increase of 36.6% on the previous year.

Breastfeeding has a promotional budget of £729,011 in 2006/07. That’s a decrease on the 2004/05 figure of £747,000.

Thanks to Save the Children for researching these figures. You can find my full talk and listen to it on line at:

Increases in maternity benefits have been welcomed by us, though returning to work does not have to be a barrier to breastfeeding.

There are, however, concerns arising about the impact of the government's Healthy Start scheme, referred to by Mr. Johnson. This is from an industry marketing report:

---Extract begins
Milks receive boost from Healthy Start

In 2007 sales received a boost due to the introduction of the Healthy Start welfare scheme in late 2006, which gives less well-off mothers vouchers to spend on infant formula purchased from retail outlets, rather than being given free milks via clinics.
---extract ends

Journalists wanting the full report can contact me. I'll write more about it in due course.

So while it is great that Mr. Johnson has participated in this webchat, his answer show the government does not understand the impact of its policies and is not answering the questions it is being asked.

Please do keep on supporting our work and the wider Baby Feeding Law Group and Breastfeeding Manifesto campaigns.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I was pleased to see that two questions made it to the webchat even if the responses were disappointing.