United Nations reports baby formula advertising is ‘pervasive’, ‘misleading’, ‘aggressive’

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as United Nations Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) interviewed healthcare workers, expecting mothers and those with newborns about baby formula advertising. More than half reported they feel aggressively targeted by baby formula manufacturers. 

According to both WHO and UNICEF, the $55B baby formula industry uses unfair and wide-scale marketing strategies as a method to influence what parents feed their children. These formulas being advertised have been shown to have a negative affect on child nutrition. 

For the survey, close to 8,500 parents and pregnant women, as well as 300 healthcare workers from around the globe were interviewed. Results suggest exposure to baby formula marketing reached 84 percent of all women in the UK, 92 percent in Vietnam, and a staggering 97 percent in China. All with the goal of increasing the likelihood of formula feeding.

The report shows that the baby formula industry delivers purposely misleading and scientifically unfounded information to both parents and health care workers. At the same, this misleading advertising also goes against the international code of marketing of breast-milk substitutes, an important public health agreement intended to protect mothers from dangerous advertising by baby formula manufacturers. 

WHO director general, Tedros Adhnom Ghebreyesus, states, “This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” suggesting that regulations on the baby formula industry and exploitative marketing be “urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.” 

The report found that many of the marketing techniques by the baby formula industry include invasive and unregulated online targeting, as well as sponsored advice networks and helplines. 

In the past two decades, global breastfeeding rates have increased somewhat, yet baby formula sales have nearly doubled. Only 44 percent of babies less than six months are breastfed exclusively. 

To make things harder on mothers, it has been reported that the baby formula industry has been shown to potentially bribe healthcare workers. Workers have been asked to help influence what a newborn eats, and in return receive promotional gifts, research funding and even sales commissions. Shockingly, more than a third of women surveyed state that a health worker was the one that recommended a specific brand of baby formula. 

Some of the myths being spread against natural breastfeeding include nutritional inadequacy of breastmilk for infants, or that the quality of breastmilk deteriorates over time. 

However, these are just myths. Data suggests breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, exclusively followed by breastfeeding for six months and up to years can offer a powerful defense against child malnutrition universally. And that breast milk protects infants as a first line of defense against common illness, while also reducing future risks of diabetes and obesity. 

The WHO states that breastfeeding is the best way to provide infants with nutrients they need to develop healthy growth. Breastfeeding has also been shown to decrease infant death by 13 percent. 

Both WHO and UNICEF, and other partners, are calling on world governments, health care workers and the baby formula industry as a whole to end the exploitative marketing of formula.

It has also been requested that the international code of marketing of breast-milk substitutes be implemented fully. This can be done by enforcing laws to prevent formula promotion, investing in supportive breastfeeding policies and banning healthcare workers from accepting company-marketed baby formulas.

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