WHO/UNICEF release scathing report, call to action on formula marketing

The World Health Organization and UNICEF have released their long-awaited report on formula marketing. According to the report, “Formula milk is a US $55 billion per year industry that systematically undermines parents’ infant feeding decisions and compromises women’s and children’s health and human rights.” It also states, “Marketing of formula is emblematic of marketing of other products such as tobacco or gambling that prioritize sales over health and well-being.”

The report is the result of a study conducted in 8 countries on several continents: Bangladesh, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, UK, and Vietnam. The authors found that formula marketing is pervasive and powerful, and exploits parent’s anxieties, even playing on fears during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to enhance sales.  The companies’ strategic marketing messages undermine women’s confidence in breastfeeding and builds positive attitudes towards formula. Companies continue to distort scientific information, falsely positioning formula as “close to, equivalent or superior to breast milk.” Importantly, companies are targeting health professionals to promote their products.

WHO and UNICEF call on countries to adopt urgent action, including passing legislation in line with the WHO Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, and regulatory action such as plain packaging for products, and divesting from companies that exploit families through unethical marketing of formula milk products. The call for strengthening and expanding the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative.

WHO and UNICEF also call on health professionals and their associations to implement strong conflict of interest policies.  It is the marketing, “not the product itself, that disrupts informed decision-making and undermine breastfeeding and child health.”

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