Mothers from some of the world’s poorest countries are being targeted by “aggressive” marketing that claims baby milk formula is better for their child than breastmilk, according to a new report from Save the Children.  

The organization published the findings of an investigation in a report called “Don’t Push It” on Tuesday.

It claimed four companies — Nestle, Abbott, Mead Johnson, and Wyeth (now owned by Nestle) — are using marketing tactics that are clandestine and often illegal, according to the Guardian. All four have denied the allegations. 

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The investigation focused on the Philippines — where only 34% of mothers exclusively breastfeed in the first six months. 

While formula is often necessary — for women who choose to use it for preference, or aren’t able to breastfeed — the problem, according to the report, is the amount of misinformation used in marketing. 

Some mothers living in the deprived neighbourhoods of Metro Manila, told researchers they spend three-quarters of their income on formula, which often means they aren’t able to feed themselves.

One of these mothers, Jessica Icawat, 24, who has a 2-year-old daughter called Trista, told researchers: “I didn't eat just so I could feed the baby. There were some days when I didn’t eat anything. And Nestogen [a formula made by Nestle] is expensive so I couldn’t always give it to my baby when she was hungry, I only gave her half bottles, four times a day.” 

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The average cost of Nestogen is 2,000 pesos (£28) a month, but Icawat could only afford to spend 800 pesos, according to the Guardian

Icawat, whose house doesn’t have running water or electricity, also said she struggles to sterile the bottles and make up the milk powder — which has to be mixed with very hot water to be safe. 

“My baby has been sick: she was admitted to the hospital three times with diarrhoea and asthma,” she added.

The report found that, including targeted advertising on Facebook, and partnerships with influential bloggers, mothers are being exposed to greater amounts of unregulated formula advertising than ever before. 

The advertising, according to the report, convinced mothers that bottle feeding will improve their babies’ future prospects and intelligence — with some promotional material claiming formula is “clinically proven to give the IQ and EQ advantage.”

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What’s more, according to the report, formula firms also send representatives to hospitals to hand out pamphlets on “infant nutrition” to new mothers — sometimes including coupons for discounts — which have the appearance of medical advice but are in reality marketing specific brands, reported the Guardian. 

The report also claims that representatives also offer free trips to “lavish” conferences, according to the Guardian, as well as meals, tickets to the cinema and other shows, and gambling chips to doctors, midwives, and local health workers. 

This would not only be in violation of Philippines law, but also of an international code laid out by the World Health Organisation that explicitly says formula companies shouldn’t target mothers and healthcare professionals, and also restricts advertising. 

The code was drawn up in 1981 but nevertheless, nearly 40 years later, the Save the Children report says companies are still systematically violating the code. 

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“The milk formula companies now take a clandestine approach,” said Dr Amado Parawan, who has championed breastmilk in the Philippines for 20 years with Save the Children. 

He said that “on the face of it” companies have improved. “But really they are skirting around the milk code by doing visits and dinners for midwives and doctors outside of office hours, in the evenings.” 

And, says the report, this isn’t just a problem in the Philippines — but a global issue. 

In Mexico, just 31% of infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and half of mothers said their doctors had recommended formula. In Chile, 75% of doctors, nurses, and midwives reported visits to their hospitals by formula representatives. 

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Actress Isla Fisher, who is an ambassador for Save the Children, as well as being a mother-of-three, has spoken out to coincide with the launch of the report. 

“When the industry is governed properly, babies lives really can be saved,” she wrote, in an article for the Independent. “But it shouldn’t need that level of governance. Companies should operate within the agreed code and not target vulnerable women.” 

“Companies are putting their profits before the lives of newborn babies and we shouldn’t accept it anymore,” she added. 

Nestle told the Guardian in a statement: “This picture doesn’t represent Nestle’s culture and business practices. The first and most fundamental expression of our respect for mothers and babies is support for breastfeeding and compliance with the law and our own strict procedures.”

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The statement added: “Nestle strongly rejects the allegation that it doesn’t comply with its legal obligations and the WHO code as implemented in national law.” 

Abbott told the Guardian it was “committed to the ethical marketing of our products in compliance with the laws and regulations of the countries in which we do business.” 

Mead Johnson added: “We take great care to fully comply with all established laws and regulations that govern the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of all our products. Acting responsibly is core to our purpose.” 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action to achieve zero hunger, and improved nutrition, as well as universal good health and well-being. You can join us by taking action here


Defeat Poverty

Baby Formula Brands Target Vulnerable, Low-Income Mothers: Report

By Imogen Calderwood