Baby formula is big bucks – but scientists accuse companies of predatory marketing

The worldwide baby formula industry takes a profit of $55 billion US (A$79 billion) every year. It spends about $3 billion (A$4.3 billion) a year on marketing.

According to a new series in The Lancet, this “predatory” marketing is part of the reason that fewer than half of infants worldwide are breastfed according to the World Health Organization’s best practice guidelines.

“Babies are most likely to survive and grow to their full potential when breastfed,” says series co-author Professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a researcher at Yale University School of Public Health, US.

“Yet, globally, many women who wish to breastfeed face multiple barriers, including insufficient parental leave and lack of support in healthcare systems and at the workplace, in the context of exploitative marketing tactics of the commercial milk formula industry.”

The three papers in the series argue that the global baby formula industry uses “exploitative” marketing, including claiming that their products can alleviate fussiness and colic, improve sleep, and increase a child’s intelligence. The researchers say there is “little or no supporting evidence” in favour of these claims.

The industry also lobbies governments around the world against regulation and policies designed to favour breastfeeding, say the researchers.

Read more: “Undervalued” breastfeeding

Series co-author Associate Professor Julie Smith, from the Australian National University’s College of Health and Medicine, says that the global tactics made by the formula industry are replicated in Australia.

“Those structural issues are common to women around the world: like overmedicalisation of birth, and unsupportive work where you can’t take breaks to breastfeed,” says Smith.

“It’s a walk-in for the companies. It’s common problems everywhere with specific local nuances.”

Smith also points out that Australia is a major exporter of baby formula, and in places like Thailand, Cambodia and China, there’s “very aggressive marketing by Australian companies, subsidised by the Australian Government” to sell it.

The papers call for governments to introduce policies that make it easier for people to breastfeed, as well as employing stricter regulations on the formula industry’s marketing.

Smith highlights the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative as one such policy.

“You can bump up breastfeeding rates by 50% just by implementing that systematically through institutions,” says Smith.

Another key policy that improves breastfeeding rates is paid parental leave.

“When they introduced 14 weeks of paid parental leave, that immediately increased breastfeeding rates at six months, and it also increased them at 12 months,” says Smith. “So it’s not just about what women do, it’s about the situation they’re in.”

The review also points out that breastfeeding should be considered in emergency planning.

Read more: Why is newborn baby skin-to-skin contact with dads and non-birthing parents important? Here’s what the science says

“Breastfeeding rates decline in emergencies, which is really bizarre. Part of that is the companies jump in,” says Smith.

“Mothers, generally, in those situations are often assumed to be just coping, and looking after the babies […] We should plan for the needs of mothers with infants and young children. And that includes both breastfeeding support, and formula support.”

Smith points out that much of this is outlined in the 2019 Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy.

“It was a very good strategy, but then they [the Morrison government] didn’t put any money behind it,” says Smith.

The series stresses that low breastfeeding rates can be improved with policy and regulation from governments, rather than placing the onus on individual mothers.

“Women shouldn’t be guilty about this,” says Smith.

“They make their own decisions, but they’re made in the context of their society. And the drivers of that include what the formula companies are up to.”

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