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Healthcare, not marketing

Imagine your doctor telling you to reduce your sugar consumption, but handing out boxes of Frosted Flakes as you leave her office. Or, picture yourself getting a sample pack of potato chips as you check out of the cardiac ward of the hospital. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It’s not a far cry from what is happening in over two thirds of hospitals across the United States that permit the distribution of infant formula company-provided samples to new mothers after they give birth. No, infant formula isn’t sugary cereal or potato chips, but it is a vastly inferior product to breastmilk, which is why all major healthcare provider organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of babies’ lives.Flickr photo by Jean et Melo

Yet, even though the consensus about the risks of not breastfeeding for both babies and mothers’ health couldn’t be stronger, hospitals continue to market infant formula on behalf of the mega-corporations that manufacture it – giant pharmaceutical and food companies that are eager to gain the legitimacy for their product that providing samples in a healthcare facility undoubtedly confers. And these corporations are doing it because it works: research clearly shows that mothers who receive infant formula samples breastfeed for shorter durations and are less likely to breastfeed exclusively.

Today Public Citizen launched a new national campaign to end infant formula marketing in healthcare facilities. We’ve sent letters cosigned by over 100 organizations to hospitals across the country calling on them to end this practice immediately. And we aren’t letting the infant formula companies off the hook either: today we are launching a petition demanding that the three major formula makers – Abbott, Mead Johnson, and Nestle – stop using healthcare facilities as venues to market their products.

Even if you’ve never given much thought to infant formula and breastfeeding, this is an issue to take a stand on. It’s a matter of demanding that some spaces remain commercial-free: there is no place for marketing of any products in our healthcare facilities, especially those that contravene healthcare providers’ recommendations. It’s also a matter of demanding that public health come before corporate profits. The infant formula industry is powerful and deep pocketed. And the best way for it to increase its profits is to make sure less women breastfeed their babies.

Breastfeeding requires a lot of support from families, workplaces, and society in general. Ensuring that hospitals are free of marketing of infant formula is one pillar of that support system. To get a better sense of the insidious nature of this form of marketing, consider infant formula company sponsored discharge bags for breastfeeding mothers. In some hospitals, the formula companies provide two different bags: one for moms who intend to formula feed and one for those who intend to breastfeed. Guess what’s in the breastfeeding bag? Infant formula and coupons for more infant formula! As one new mom said of the “breastfeeding kit” she received: “It felt more like a ‘don’t bother kit,’ sponsored by Enfamil.”

Even for mothers who choose to formula feed, or must do so for health reasons, infant formula samples in hospitals are a bad deal. That’s because they aren’t really “free.” Because infant formula companies provide only the most expensive brands of formula in these sample bags, and because many families stick to the brand they are given in the hospital once they get home, they end up spending a lot more money on already pricey infant formula. This is further evidence of how unethical and problematic it is for healthcare facilities to allow marketing of any products. Healthcare providers have a special sway over us. Even if they don’t tell us to use a certain product outright, we’re likely to take their nonverbal cues (like the not-so-subtle distribution of samples) to heart.

So, it’s time to fight back, whether you are a parent or not, breastfeed or formula feed. Let’s preserve healthcare facilities for healthcare, not marketing. Keep infant formula marketers out of the nursery: sign our petition. Consider working with others in your community to get your local hospital to stop giving out formula samples. Raise your voice, and make it louder than the powerful voice that comes from the infant formula corporations. With your help, we can put an end to infant formula marketing in healthcare facilities.

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai is a senior researcher at Public Citizen and the campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert.