To cheering crowds and immense public support at the International Lactation Consultants Association conference, the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition announced a new national campaign to limit formula company marketing by hospitals. “Ban the Bags” will help hospitals to stop distributing formula company discharge bags to new mothers on maternity units.
Health care professionals have long opposed this practice. “This tactic is the crown jewel in the companies’ marketing strategy, because parents see the hospital as endorsing baby formula, especially the expensive brands” says Marsha Walker, RN, IBCLC, a Board member of MBC and a national authority on formula marketing. The practice is common, in part because formula companies cultivate relationships with hospital staff and offer lucrative incentives to get hospitals to market their product.
Infant formula is an $8 billion a year global industry, with almost half of all sales coming from the US. The promotional bags advertise only the most expensive brands of formula. Because research shows that most parents who use formula use the brand advertised in the hospital, this results in these families paying 66% more than store brands, or more than $700 a year.
Research also shows that when breastfeeding mothers take home one of these commercial brands, they are more likely to start using formula. “The advertising effect is so dramatic that it occurs even if the bags do not contain any formula samples,” says Merewood, Director of the Breastfeeding Center at Boston Medical Center, and with Walker, a founder and co-chair of Ban the Bags.
Hospital distribution of commercial bags is opposed by many health professional organizations. Not breastfeeding, or early weaning is linked with an increased risk in many acute and chronic diseases in children, as well as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and type 2 diabetes in mothers.
Ban the Bags operates under the auspices of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition (MBC), but is run by a committee of experts from around the country, as well as by board members of MBC, a non proft organization comprised largely of health care professionals involved in maternal and child health.
The organization and its website, BantheBags.org were founded in the wake of Massachusetts recent struggle to enact a regulation banning the bags from all hospitals in the state. While the regulation was initially approved, Gov. Mitt Romney intervened to kill it, going so far as replacing one third of the Public Health Council just before its May decision. Just two weeks later, the Massachusetts government announced a state-sponsored deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb, makers of Enfamil infant formula, to build a $660 million pharmaceutical plant in Massachusetts, in a move widely expected to bolster Romney’s possible presidential bid.