Globally, more than half of parents and pregnant women (51 per cent) surveyed for a new WHO/UNICEF report say they have been targeted with marketing from formula milk companies, much of which is in breach of international standards on infant feeding practices.
The report, `How Marketing of Formula Milk Influences Our Decisions On Infant Feeding’, draws on interviews with parents, pregnant women and health workers in eight countries – Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam. It uncovers systematic and unethical marketing strategies used by the formula milk industry to influence parents’ infant feeding decisions.
The study finds that industry marketing techniques include unregulated and invasive online targeting; sponsored advice networks and helplines; promotions and free gifts; and practices to influence training and recommendations among health workers.
The messages that parents and health workers receive are often misleading, scientifically unsubstantiated, and violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes – a landmark public health agreement passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said, “This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive.”
“Regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.”
One mother interviewed in Lagos said, “Advertisements will make me buy infant formula – I see a beautiful and chubby baby on TV, well-fed and smiling and there is a container of milk there with all the nutritional facts on it, detailed.”
The effects of marketing in Nigeria are seen in recommendations from health professionals and on digital platforms, with companies using data-driven algorithms to target digital advertising to women whose online behaviour suggests they may be pregnant.
Digital influencers make regular posts about formula milk – including celebrities, paediatricians, so-called experts and ‘mom influencers.’
Meanwhile, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said, “False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a substantial barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers”.
“We need robust policies, legislation and investments in breastfeeding to ensure that women are protected from unethical marketing practices — and have access to the information and support they need to raise their families.”
In Nigeria, 73 per cent of women expressed a strong desire to breastfeed exclusively. Yet the report details how a sustained flow of misleading marketing messages across countries is reinforcing myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, and undermining women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully. These myths include the necessity of formula in the first days after birth, the inadequacy of breast milk for infant nutrition, that specific infant formula ingredients are proven to improve child development or immunity, the perception that formula keeps infants fuller for longer, and that the quality of breast milk declines with time.