Formula Milk Firms Attack US Breastfeeding Campaign

05 December 2003

A US government-backed ad campaign to encourage breastfeeding may be altered after complaints from manufacturers of infant formula milk profucts.

The ads -- developed for the Department of Health and Human Services by non-profit group the Ad Council -- were due to break this month. However, no launch date has been confirmed as officials consider changing the campaign in light of pressure from two formula milk firms and several physicians.

The ads were initially intended to focus on "the risks associated with not breastfeeding", according to a newsletter from the Ad Council. One planned spot was to feature pregnant women roller skating with the voiceover: "You'd never take risks while you're pregnant. Why start when the baby's born?''

Failure to breastfeed is thought to make babies more susceptible to several serious diseases. Some of the planned ads were to include statistics claiming that non-breastfed infants are 30% more likely to develop leukaemia and 40% more likely to develop diabetes.

None of which went down well with the makers of formula milk. Mead Johnson, a division of Bristol-Myers Squibb, said that, although it supports a breastfeeding campaign, the planned ads were too extreme. "We worried it would give an impression that infant formula is unhealthy and potentially dangerous," it declared.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Abbott Laboratories unit Ross Products, which blasted the campaign's approach as "like a scare tactic".

The government has also received complaints from senior officials at the American Academy of Pediatrics who believe the tone of the campaign and the science it uses are flawed. However, others in the Academy disagree, and there have been suggestions that AAP officials have opposed the ads to placate some of the body's largest donors -- the makers of formula milk.

According to Amy Spangler, chair of the United States Breastfeeding Committee and advisor to the campaign, the government has now decided to pull the ads that claim failure to breastfeed raises the risks of leukaemia and diabetes. Spots suggesting a link with obesity and ear infections will be kept, but any specific statistics will be dropped. Spangler says her source is a federal official.

The DHHS is yet to confirm any of the reported changes to the campaign. It is thought that Kevin Keane, the department's assistant secretary for public affairs, met experts this week to discuss any alterations.

One expert opposed to a change in direction is Marsha Walker, Spangler's colleague in the Breastfeeding Committee leadership. "This is being shot down by an industry that has no business interfering," she blasted. "Ultimately it hurts the health of our babies and our moms."

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff