Health care providers for mothers and babies joined forces today in a letter asking Massachusetts hospitals to make a New Year’s resolution: Move formula marketing bags out of maternity wards. “New mothers deserve our support,” the letter reads. “Hospitals should market health, and nothing else. We would be pleased to work with you on helping to eliminate this practice.”
Signed by the Massachusetts chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN), and the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition (MBC), the letter went to the directors of clinical services, CEOs and marketing divisions for the 39 maternity hospitals that currently distribute the bags.
“It’s a conflict of interest,” said Melissa Bartick, MD, chair of MBC. “The only way to sell more formula is to sell less breastfeeding,” said Bartick. Studies show that nursing mothers who take home a bag are more likely to start using formula. The US accounts for half of the $8 billion a year global formula market.
Medical authorities recommend babies get only breast milk for the first six months. “The bags undermine the advice we are giving to our patients,” says Dr. Lauren Hanley, one of the obstetricians who signed the letter for Massachusetts ACOG.
Massachusetts made national headlines last year, when the Public Health Council voted to ban the marketing bags from maternity hospitals, becoming the first state in the country to do so. The decision was reversed by Gov. Romney, who fired three members of the Public Health Council just before a repeat vote.
In response, the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition launched Ban the Bags, a national campaign to rid all US maternity wards of the bags. “Ban the Bags has gathered tremendous momentum in removing this unethical marketing practice from US Hospitals,” said Marsha Walker, RN, IBCLC, co-chair of the Ban the Bags Campaign. In addition, Walker says, “The bags advertise only the priciest brands, so even bottle-feeding parents end up spending more money because the bags really cultivate brand-loyalty.”
“Breastfeeding is a public health challenge,” says Dr. Susan Browne, one of the pediatricians who signed the letter for the state AAP chapter. “Marketing campaigns for baby formula have no place in our state’s hospitals.” In infants, not breastfeeding is linked increased rates of ear infections, diarrhea and hospitalization, as well as chronic illnesses, including such costly diseases as obesity and type 1 diabetes. Mothers who stop nursing early face higher risks of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Eleven of the state’s 50 maternity units are bag-free, four of which went bag free since January 2006, even without a state mandate. The current bag-free hospitals are: Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Cambridge Birth Center, Cambridge Hospital, Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center of Boston, Franklin Medical Center, Lowell General Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, North Shore Birth Center, and Newton Wellesley Hospital.