ISLAMABAD: Slightly more than half of parents and pregnant women (51 per cent) surveyed for a WHO/Unicef report say they have been approached by formula milk companies with marketing messages, which is in violation of international standards on infant feeding practices.

The report — titled “How marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding” — draws on interviews with parents, pregnant women and health workers in eight countries. It uncovers systematic and unethical marketing strategies used by the formula milk industry — now worth a staggering $55 billion — to influence parents’ infant feeding decisions.

According to a statement issued by WHO, the report says the industry’s 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 (the Code) — a public health agreement passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.

Messages that parents and health workers receive are often misleading and scientifically unsubstantiated, adds WHO-Unicef report

“This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.”

According to the report that surveyed 8,500 parents and pregnant women besides 300 health workers in cities across Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, the exposure to marketing of formula milk reaches 84pc of all women surveyed in the United Kingdom; 92pc in Vietnam and 97pc in China, increasing their likelihood of choosing formula feeding.

“False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a substantial barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers,” said Unicef executive director Catherine Russell.

“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.”

Breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond, offers a powerful line of defence against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2022

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