There is a set of guidelines on marketing of formula called the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. This code was prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF). It was adopted by the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 1981 as a "minimum requirement" to protect infant health and is intended to be implemented in its entirety. The World Health Assembly is the forum by which the WHO is governed, and comprises the Ministers of Health of the worlds governments, their advisers, and eminent experts in the field of public health. The US originally voted against the code, but in 1994 it was endorsed by Bill Clinton's government so in theory, every member of the WHO supports the code. This information can be found in more detailed form by clicking here.
The International Baby Food Action Network summarises the code as "an international public health recommendation to regulate the marketing of breastmilk substitutes". The code is not binding like a treaty, but implementation of the code is seen as necessary under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Full details of the code can be found here.
In 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considered the UK's implementation of the code and reported:
The Committee, while appreciating the progress made in recent years in the promotion and support of breastfeeding in the State party, it is concerned that implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes continues to be inadequate and that aggressive promotion of breastmilk substitutes remains common.
The Committee recommends that the State party implement fully the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The State party should also further promote baby-friendly hospitals and encourage that breastfeeding is included in nursery training.
So "aggressive promotion of breastmilk substitutes remains common" in the UK at the moment. Why is this a problem? We all know that once a mother makes the decision to feed formula milk, it is very difficult to revert back to breastfeeding, even if that is what she would like to do. So the decision to give formula milk should really be made with full knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of using breastmilk substitutes. This is the problem, and the reason that I object to the marketing of formula milk: it is inevitably one-sided, proclaiming the advantages of formula milk without alluding to the fact that breastmilk is better for babies. Information on infant feeding needs to be presented in a balanced, factual manner so that women are informed but not seduced. If, when armed with the necessary knowledge, they choose to formula feed then that is their own decision. But formula milk advertising will never be balanced and factual and therefore it should not be allowed.
I find the current situation, in which advertising of follow-on milk is lawful, to be ridiculous. As the Baby Feeding Law Group points out, companies easily exploit this loophole by branding their follow-on milk products in a virtually identical way to their basic breastmilk substitutes. They also provide websites and operate baby clubs in order to present themselves as authorities on infant care and nutrition. Information on infant nutrition will never be unbiased when it is provided by a company wishing to sell its own products.
The battle to convince more women to breastfeed will not be won as a result of any state legislation or government action. The advice of family and friends is probably more influential than any breastfeeding awareness campaign could be. But formula milk advertisements cannot help any mother to make an informed choice on her feeding method. If an advert is responsible for just one baby growing up less healthily as a result of being formula fed, then that is one baby too many. So I wish that the UK government would start to properly enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, and perhaps one day progress to a total ban on formula milk advertising.
Baby Milk Action press release
World Health Assembly wikipedia page
International Baby Food Action Network page on International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes
Baby Feeding Law Group