We must close the loophole that facilitates misleading online ads for baby formula

A new Bill making its way through the Dáil offers an historic chance to end baby formula companies’ exploitative practices

The first few months with a new baby are some of the most intense and challenging of a parent’s life. For first-time mums and dads, it can be especially nerve-racking, full of anxiety and seemingly never-ending doubts.

How and what to feed your precious new infant are among the most fraught questions. Parents intuitively know the answer is to do what’s right for them and their baby, yet so many feel torn by mixed messages about infant feeding and claims about commercial milk formula products.

In recent months Unicef, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), have reported the true extent of the manipulative and invasive online tactics used by formula milk companies that are contributing to parents’ feeding anxieties and choices.

For decades, formula milk has been one of only two products (alongside tobacco) covered by an international agreement restricting marketing practices. The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, also known as “the Code”, is a landmark public health agreement passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect parents from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.

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The Code does not aim to remove formula milk products from the shelves or to limit parents’ choices, but it does aim to restrict harmful marketing of formula milk. It’s simply that parents should have accurate, independent and science-based information that puts children’s health and parents’ choices in advance of commercial interests.

As our lives have moved increasingly online, formula milk companies have found and taken advantage of loopholes in Irish legislation. They are now flooding the online world with aggressive, personalised and exploitative messages.

Our recent research reveals deeply troubling ways they do it, by portraying their products as able to solve common infant problems that they can’t. They cast themselves as a trusted friend and neutral adviser, which they aren’t.

Many of the myths that families receive through this marketing are simply incorrect: that formula is necessary in the first days after birth; that breast milk is inadequate for infant nutrition; that specific infant formula ingredients are proven to improve child development or immunity; that formula keeps infants fuller for longer or that the quality of breast milk declines with time.

Informed choice becomes difficult when parents are faced with distorted science falsely positioning formula as close to, equivalent or superior to breast milk. Research shows that formula milk marketing does make an impact and, over time, marketing can shift values and beliefs. Even though we see a strong desire from women across the world to breastfeed exclusively, our research showed that mothers and even health professionals still believed some of the misleading information presented in marketing campaigns.

Right now, the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is working through the legislative process in the Dáil. Across a wide spectrum of issues, this Bill offers the promise of creating a safer and more positive online world for children and parents. Tucked away in a small corner of the Bill, a few lines propose a historic opportunity to end the unethical marketing practices of formula milk companies.

Our ask is simple. The Bill must extend the current laws around the advertising of formula milk for babies (0-6 months) to include the digital space. And importantly, it must also strengthen the current legislation by extending the law to other breast-milk substitute drinks for young children under 36 months — as recommended by the UN World Health Assembly. The online world of marketing never sleeps and must stop being an unregulated tool that formula milk companies exploit at will.

Why is this so important? It is not just a tussle between international organisations and commercial interests. It makes a difference to children’s and mothers health and wellbeing. How children are fed in the first years have an impact on their lifelong health and development. Early initiation, exclusive and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond provides a powerful line of defence against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity. Breastfeeding also acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses. It also reduces women’s future risk of diabetes, obesity, breast and ovarian cancer.

Yet globally, only 44 per cent of babies less than six months old are exclusively breastfed, and we need to do better as a nation to support those mothers who wish to breastfeed. For those mothers and parents who are unable to choose to breastfeed, formula milk needs to be accessible, and mothers should not be criticised for using it. However, parents need to have accurate and honest information, free from misleading or biased marketing claims, so as to make choices on how they feed their infants in a way that best serves their lives and interests — not to benefit shareholders of commercial formula milk producers.

When the Dáil returns in the autumn our public representatives have the opportunity — through better legislation, regulation and enforcement — to take a huge step forward in protecting the health and rights of children. Politicians in Ireland must recognise the scale and urgency of the problem, make good decisions and act.

— Grainne Moloney is senior nutrition adviser with Unicef and Dr Nigel Rollins is a scientist with the World Health Organisation