Formula milk sales pitch is at expense of women, children's health: Report

The Lancet series emphasised the dominating formula milk industries' economic and political influence as well as the inadequacies of public policies that hinder millions of women from nursing.
For representational purposes. (Photo| AFP)
For representational purposes. (Photo| AFP)

NEW DELHI:  Formula milk manufacturers have come out with a highly effective marketing playbook to increase sales at the expense of the rights, health, and welfare of families, women, and children, said the 2023 Lancet series on breastfeeding. 

The Lancet series emphasised the dominating formula milk industries' economic and political influence as well as the inadequacies of public policies that hinder millions of women from nursing, as is recommended.

"The CMF (commercial milk formula) industry deploys a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook to turn the care and concern of parents and caregivers into a business opportunity," the report said.

"CMF marketing impinges on the human rights of women and children, harms their health, and adversely affects society. However, addressing marketing is insufficient on its own. Policies must remove structural barriers, and society must fully enable and support women to breastfeed," it added.

Noting that the consumption of commercial milk formula by infants and young children has been normalised, the series said more children are consuming CMF than ever before. 

"Only 48 per cent of the world's infants and young children are breastfed as recommended. Despite the huge body of evidence on the lifelong benefits of breastfeeding," it added.

"This situation reflects the stranglehold the CMF industry has on governments, health professionals, academic institutions, and increasingly on caregivers and families through pervasive social media," it said, adding that CMF companies exert undue control on the infant and young child feeding discourse. 

The value of CMF sales has increased year on year, it added.

The series underlined, yet again, inadequate progress in improving breastfeeding practices globally, with the decisive addition of quantifying the association between sales of CMF and national breastfeeding rates.

In India, as per NFHS-5, despite 88.6 per cent of institutional births, only 41.8 per cent of women can breastfeed in the first hour of birth, which is alarming, said Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), a child welfare NGO.

The Indian government has enacted the Infant Milk Substitutes Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act 1992 and Amendment Act 2003 (IMS Act) to control the marketing of baby foods as a follow-up to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions.

But despite the legal framework to stop the promotion of the products under its scope, baby food and feeding bottle companies aggressively promote their products in India to make profits on the harmful products, said Dr Arun Gupta, Central Coordinator, BPNI, which has been authorised by the union health ministry to initiate action under section 21(1) of the IMS Act for officially monitoring and implementing the Act.

The scope of the IMS Act extends to infant milk substitutes, feeding bottles and infant foods. The Act prohibits any promotion by any means, may it be advertising, incentives on sales, sponsoring health workers' meetings etc., he said, adding that it also prescribes labelling requirements and standards for these products.

But one can see blatant promotions of baby food and bottles, especially of emerging local brands, on Youtube and Instagram, he added.

"The irony is that the companies continue to violate the IMS Act, and there has been no action taken even for an investigation. Governments need to do more to protect mothers and children from the commercial influence of aggressive marketing. A comprehensive monitoring system has to be in place for meaningful implementation of the law," he said.

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The New Indian Express