The Department of Health in the Philippines (DOH) has announced that it will investigate Nestlé and three other powdered milk companies, a day after the Guardian revealed that the private companies were routinely breaking the law in their attempts to persuade poor mothers to choose milk formula over breastfeeding.
A joint investigation with Save the Children found that, in a clear violation of Philippine law, the milk formula companies were earning the loyalty of doctors, midwives and local health workers by offering them free trips to lavish conferences, tickets to shows and the cinema and even gambling chips.
The Guardian reported that Nestlé, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth company representatives regularly visit hospital wards to hand out “infant nutrition” pamphlets stacked with milk formula marketing material and discount coupons to mothers, many of whom are poor and uneducated.
Hospital staff were also found to be advising new mothers on buying specific formula brands.
Dr Anthony Calibo, division chief for the children’s health division of the DOH, confirmed to the Guardian that they had passed on the report’s findings to the Food and Drug Authority, the regulatory body responsible for carrying out investigations and meting out financial punishment.
“It has been a struggle for government to crack down on all of these illicit practices of the milk companies but we thought that things had changed a bit and improved,” said Calibo.
“Your findings pull us all back and make us realise that the problem is still there and the monster is still at large. We really have to find a way to cage that monster.”
Despite a 1981 World Health Organisation (WHO) international code narrowing the industry’s legal advertising parameters and explicitly banning milk formula companies from directly targeting mothers and healthcare professionals, the milk formula industry has grown three times faster than the global economy in the past two decades.
According to Save the Children, the leading formula companies spend an equivalent of $49.50 on marketing for every baby born worldwide.
At the WHO’s Western pacific meeting in October 2017, WHO director of nutrition for health and development Francesco Branca said that the formula companies’ aggressive marketing was undermining efforts to increase breastfeeding in the Asia Pacific region.
As it stands, the region is very unlikely to meet its 2025 target of increasing the proportion of mothers exclusively breastfeeding their children during the first six months to at least 50%, said Branca.
Cambodia is the only country in the region currently exceeding that target.
According to the WHO, scaling up breastfeeding globally could save 823,000 lives per year among children ages five years old and younger.