July 18, 2012
BOSTON— Massachusetts celebrated being the nation’s second and largest bag-free state today in a celebration at the State House. “We are so proud of our 49 hospitals. This wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t a cost-neutral decision for a lot of the hospitals,” said Dr. Bobbi Philipp, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and head of the Mother-Baby Summit Initiative. At the celebration, Marsha Walker, head of Ban the Bags, issued an ambitious challenge: the next celebration will be when all our hospitals become Baby-Friendly. Dr. Lauren Smith, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, was effusive in her praise for this accomplishment. DPH has been a strong supporter of breastfeeding and a close partner of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition for many years.
The ban does not affect mothers’ ability to feed their children formula in the hospital if they choose to or if it’s needed. It means that hospitals will no longer serve as marketing agents for brand-name formula companies by distributing their marketing materials for them. A centerpiece of the industry’s marketing practices has been for hospitals and health providers to distribute the company “gift bags,” which implies endorsement by doctors and hospitals and is thought to drive up sales of brand-name formula.
The event’s host, State Senator Susan Fargo, who sponsored the legislation that gave mothers the right to nurse in public, spoke of the importance of selecting politicians with a strong record on public health. She noted that Mitt Romney, who forced DPH to rescind a DPH regulation banning marketing of infant formula by hospitals when he was governor, had a poor record in this regard, including hiring public health officials with no public health background.
Dr. Melissa Bartick, an internist and chair of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, noted “this is a grass-roots, David vs. Goliath victory for public health, and we deserve to be very very proud.” She detailed the events that occurred under Governor Romney in 2006, including the story of the banner that hung behind all the speakers, which reads “Why are hospitals marketing baby formula? Hospitals should market health, and nothing else.” The same banner was used at MBC’s State House demonstration in 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to convince Romney to reverse his decision. Those efforts, she noted, had the support of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts section of the American College of OB-GYN, and the Massachusetts Medical Society (publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine). Bartick urged the nation to move forward in eliminating conflicts of interest. As long as our health institutions take money from formula companies, fast food, and soft-drink manufacturers, she stated, “they cannot truly practice evidence-based medicine.” She noted that the national office of the American Academy of Pediatrics accepts financial support from all these companies. “Taking such money will ultimately cost these institutions their credibility, something that no amount of money can buy.”
After the State House celebration, Drs. Philipp and Bartick and Marsha Walker took some of the formula companies bags to the site of the original Boston Tea Party to ceremonially “throw them overboard” for the cameras. (Not to worry– MBC would not litter the Boston Harbor).
Massachusetts’ accomplishment and Romney’s role in it were featured in an explosive article in Time which came out yesterday. Dr. Philipp was interviewed today about the on WBUR, an NPR station, where she faced off with “Skeptical OB” blogger Dr. Amy Tuteur. The Boston Globe featured a story on the ban on July 13. WLBZ TV in Bangor, ME ran a story today featuring Anne Merewood, PhD of Boston Medical Center who researches the bags.
From the comments in some of the media, it is clear that not everyone understands why this ban matters. To this, Dr. Bartick asks, “In what universe is it ever OK for your hospitals, doctors, and nurses to be marketing a pricey brand-name product to you that you do not need?” Even if you never plan to breastfeed, she pointed out today, this pricey brand will cost you $700 more per year than store brand, and you are likely to stick to the brand that was marketed to you in the hospital.