Nov. 16, 1998 WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Federal legislation to curb industry marketing practices in the sale of infant formula and to enforce a World Health Assembly code banning the promotion of formula was called for today (Nov. 12) by a Cornell University physician and nutritional scientist. Mothers who don't breastfeed, he claims, endanger their babies' health.
Michael Latham, M.D., professor of international nutrition at Cornell, said he is urging Washington to act to curb what he called "aggressive" marketing and promotion of infant formula in the United States and abroad, which, he said, "violates a basic human right of mothers and babies to give and receive breastmilk."
"This violation, which is largely ignored, is harmful to the health, nutritional status, and even the survival of infants all over the world," he said at the National Breastfeeding Policy Conference, sponsored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, which is being held Nov. 12-13 in Washington, D.C. "The negative impact that the marketing and promotion of infant formula has on the health of babies in this country can be compared to the deleterious effects that cigarette marketing has on the health of teens and adults."
Latham noted that in the 1970s a public outcry over the role of industry in the decline of breastfeeding, accompanied by an increased understanding of the harmful effects of bottle-feeding in developing countries, resulted in the World Health Assembly issuing the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981. The code prohibits advertising to the public, free samples to mothers, gifts or personal samples to health workers, and images idealizing formula feeding. The code, which can be enforced only by national governments, is intended not to restrict women's choice, Latham said, but to enable them to make a fully informed choice, free of industry pressure.
Only one country, the United States, voted against the code.
Although Washington has since supported the code at the international level, Latham said that the government has done little to support national breastfeeding initiatives or to enforce the code nationally by passing legislation to restrict certain marketing practices and to close loopholes.
The negative health effects of not breastfeeding are finally being recognized, Latham said. The conference will seek to establish, for the first time, a national breastfeeding policy.
Diane Wiessinger, Cornell B.A. '72, M.S. '78, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, who co-authored the presentation, reported that about 60 percent of U.S. mothers breastfeed their babies at birth, but that only about 20 percent of infants still receive any breastmilk by six months of age. "Although breastfeeding has increased in recent years, the gap between scientific and public understanding of the risks associated with not breedfeeding is still very large," she said.
According to Latham, widely documented risks of not breastfeeding include reduced IQ, compromised psychological development, greater rates of ear infections, diarrhea, obesity, allergies and even certain life-threatening illnesses and diseases. The influential American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement in December of 1997 strongly supporting breastfeeding, Latham said.
"Yet, infant formula manufacturers spend billions of dollars marketing to health care professionals because each mother who bottle-feeds represents $800 in sales," he added. "As a result of aggressive and pervasive marketing of infant formula, we have lost a breastfeeding culture in this country in just a few generations.
"The health profession has worked, largely unwittingly, along with the formula industry to render breastfeeding both superior and too serious -- and thus to make it seem unattainable and undesirable. Instead, we need to promote breastfeeding as normal and healthful for mother and baby and as an expected part of the everyday life of the average human being. Not to do so is hazardous to the health and well-being of the nation's infants," said Latham, who also offered numerous recommendations to promote breastfeeding. "The National Breastfeeding Conference represents an important step toward restoring a breastfeeding culture."
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