President criticises ‘abuse of advertising’ in relation to infant formula

New WHO/Unicef report finds many formula marketing practices breach standards

An "abuse of advertising" in relation to infant formula seeks to confuse parents and pregnant people, President Michael D Higgins has said, after a report found many formula milk marketing practices are in breach of international standards.

More than half of parents and pregnant women surveyed for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef report said they had been targeted by formula milk companies through marketing.

The report, which surveyed 8,500 parents and pregnant women and 300 health workers in cities in eight countries, found that 84 per cent of all women surveyed in the UK and 97 per cent of women in China had been exposed to formula milk promotion.

The report highlighted that misleading formula marketing messages were reinforcing myths about breastfeeding such as how breast milk was inadequate for infant nutrition. Examples found of misleading marketing messages included that ingredients in formula milk were proven to improve child development or immunity.


These messages violate the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.

While the Republic was not included in the survey, the President and his wife Sabina Higgins still welcomed the publication of the "significant and important" report.

“The issue of intense and manipulative marketing around the use of formula milk for babies is an issue that we have often highlighted with great concern,” they said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Unable to demolish the science and research that shows that breast milk is best, an abuse of advertising seeks to confuse with slogans that speak of ‘follow-on’ products that are in reality contradictory to what breastfeeding principles envisage or stand for.”

National Breastfeeding Week

The statement said the couple hosted an event in Áras an Uachtaráin every year in support of National Breastfeeding Week.

“We do this to restore, respect and encourage breastfeeding, to place it at the heart of national and international policy, in our development and poverty elimination policies, and in our health strategies,” the statement said.

“Breastfeeding is a basic component of sustainability. It makes sense – even in the economics of public health.”

It added: “Our hope is that honest and factual representations on the benefits of breastfeeding will be assisted by the publication of this report and it is for this reason that it must be wholeheartedly welcomed.”

Ireland is one of the biggest producers of formula milk in the world and also has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

The WHO recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives and continue to be breastfed for up to two years and beyond.

In Ireland, about 6 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed for the six months, according to a 2021 report by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, while the global average of babies exclusively breastfed for six months is 44 per cent.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times