Launch of report

A shocking new report on formula marketing which was commissioned by the World Health Organisation and Unicef has been launched. Called ‘How the marketing of formula milk influences our discussions on infant feeding’, it is a large scale and thorough report in which women’s voices are a key part. The report can be downloaded from this page.

Eight countries were included (Mexico, Bangladesh, UK, Vietnam, S. Africa, Nigeria, China and Morocco) and it involved 8500 mothers talking about their experiences of being targeted and also interviews with health professionals and marketing executives. The survey was conducted by M&C Saatchi World Services, which states on its website: “Our aim is to harness the power of cutting-edge marketing, communications and creativity, so that they become key tenets of behaviour change activity throughout the International Development sector.”

The conclusions of the report are that the marketing is highly targeted, pervasive and exploitative, uses misleading scientific claims and incorporates appeals to aspiration. It therefore backs up robustly what has been known about infant formula marketing for many years. Industry invests more in marketing each year than the funds WHO has available!

Marketing the $55 billion formula milk industry’, the webinar of the launch of the report on 23 February is available here.

What needs to happen:

1. Invest in mothers and families (e.g. good maternity legislation)

2. Protect the integrity of science and medicine (including strong conflict of interest policies)

3. Urgently legislate, regulate and enforce regulations in order to protect all families.

The launch was hosted by Kathriona Devereux, science communicator and Cuidhu breastfeeding counsellor, on behalf of WHO, Unicef, Save the Children and two other organisations. Dr. Nigel Rollins gave a brief history of infant formula marketing and presented the key findings. Anu Narayan of Unicef framed the issue – it’s about marketing, the right to accurate and impartial information, and public health v commercial interests, not about breastfeeding v bottle feeding or limiting access or rights. The study questions were:

  • What are women’s experiences of and attitudes towards formula marketing?
  • What are health professionals’ experiences of and attitudes towards formula marketing?

The presentation was followed by comments from a panel that comprised Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand), Rebone Ntsie, dietitian from South Africa, Duong Vu from Alive and Thrive in Vietnam, Professor Caroline Homer, specialist in maternal and infant nutrition, and Katie Gilbert, Managing Director at M&C Saatchi World Services. Recommendations for action from the panel included: framing the issues as supporting the right to health, engaging political leaders, recognising the scale and urgency of the problem, improving national regulations and checking imports comply with regulations. It was also suggested that public health needs both to provide the services that mothers need and to demonstrate empathy in its communications, as breastfeeding counsellors are trained to do, indicating understanding of what it’s like to be a mother; formula marketing conveys that impression of understanding.

Worryingly, updating the International Code to address marketing through social media better was also suggested; however, the Code has been updated by 19 subsequent resolutions since 1981 to close loopholes and it does cover all marketing. Governments need to have strong enforceable regulations to implement the Code and resolutions, including addressing digital marketing, and thus protect infants and young children.

What wasn’t mentioned was the significant negative environmental impact of formula feeding. Protecting and supporting families who want to breastfeed to do so will reduce that negative impact.

What can you do?

Sign the WHO open letter #EndExploitativeMarketing.

In addition there is a petition to stop unethical formula research on babies, and particularly a new study in Africa in which low birthweight exclusively breastfed babies will randomly be allocated formula.

If you’d like to check the content of the current UK Laws, the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG) has information and links on its website.


Patricia Wise is an NCT Breastfeeding Counsellor and a member of the WBTi UK Steering Group

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