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The Push to Ban Companies From Advertising Infant Formula

Fewer than one in five countries fully implement the World Health Organization’s formula-marketing guidelines, which are designed to encourage breastfeeding.
Black-and-white photo showing a woman in a rocking chair, breastfeeding an infant

Like many experts, the World Health Organization recommends that babies drink only breast milk for the first six months of their lives, and to continue to have breast milk, along with solid foods, until they’re at least two years old. In fact, the WHO believes breastfeeding to be so important that, since 1981, it has urged countries to ban companies from advertising infant formula, bottles, and nipples; giving out cheap or free samples to hospitals and clinics; and making certain health claims on their packaging.

So how seriously are nations taking the WHO recommendations? The United States, for one, doesn’t appear to care. The U.S. has no laws that enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, according to an analysis the WHO published this month. The U.S. has also been slow to comply with the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes—which is voluntary—although that’s starting to change. In 2013, 32 percent of American hospitals gave away free formula to new moms, according to a recent study, compared to 73 percent in 2007.

In 2013, 32 percent of American hospitals gave away free formula to new moms.

Worldwide, 135 out of the 194 countries WHO researchers analyzed had at least some laws that followed the baby-food marketing code. Thirty-nine countries implemented the code in full. “There are still far too many places where mothers are inundated with incorrect and biased information through advertising and unsubstantiated health claims,” Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, said in a statement. “This can distort parents’ perceptions and undermine their confidence in breastfeeding, with the result that far too many children miss out on its many benefits.” In general, low-income countries are more likely to have strong anti-formula marketing laws than high-income countries.

Drinking breast milk helps babies fight off illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea, which can be especially deadly in middle- and low-income countries. The WHO estimates it would save the lives of 820,000 children ages five and younger annually if nearly all babies breastfed. But breast milk also helps kids in high-income countries. Based on studies mostly of developed nations, a 2007 WHO-sponsored review found that teenagers who breastfed as babies tend to perform better in school, and adults who breastfed are less likely to suffer from diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol.