Experts are calling for a crackdown on the marketing of baby milk formula to enable mothers to make informed decisions about feeding their babies, free from industry influence.
Only about a third of Australian babies are exclusively breastfed for the World Health Organisation’s recommended period of six months, while the sale of formula is on the rise.
An international team of scientists, including experts from The Australian National University and Deakin University, have published studies in The Lancet saying corporations are exploiting parents’ emotions and manipulating scientific information to push sales of baby milk formula.
The authors want governments to adopt an international legal treaty to regulate formula marketing ploys to protect the health of mothers and babies.
Lead author Phil Baker, from Deakin University, says Australia is one of only a few countries that has not implemented the WHO international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes into law.
“Instead, we have a voluntary code of conduct, so-called ‘self-regulation’, that is supposed to stop this marketing. But it clearly doesn’t,” he said.
The Australian and New Zealand governments lobbied to weaken efforts to regulate formula marketing, he said.
“The milk formula industry has consistently, and at times aggressively, lobbied against the regulation of formula marketing in many countries.”
Tactics used to avoid regulation are similar to the lobbying and advertising techniques used by the tobacco industry, researchers say.
ANU Associate Professor Julie Smith says milk formula companies “are using an arsenal of sophisticated tactics to sell their products”, exploiting parents’ worries about their child’s health.
“The formula industry uses misleading information to suggest … their products are solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges,” she said.
Advertising inaccurately infers that specialised formulas alleviate fussiness, help with colic, prolong night-time sleep and even encourage superior intelligence.
“These marketing techniques violate the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which says labels should not idealise the use of milk formula and exploits poor science to create an untrue story to sell more products,” she said.
The paper also called on governments and workplaces to extend the duration of paid maternity leave.
“Advice that breastfeeding is best for their babies’ health is no use if women are not supported to understand and manage unsettled baby behaviours, or if mothers without maternity leave or pay are forced to go back to employment out of financial necessity,” Ass Prof Smith said.
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