Tue, Aug 01, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Give parents freedom of choice

It was good to see the Taiwan Academy of Breastfeeding and several other associations last week call on the Department of Health to get its act together when it comes to the regulation of the way infant formula manufacturers market their products.

It's about time that somebody highlighted the shameful behavior many formula makers indulge in when promoting their products to new mothers.

Many first time parents are clueless about the science of breast milk when their new infant arrives on the scene. The first few days for a new mother can be hectic and extremely troubling, with constant worries about whether the newborn is feeding sufficiently. It is all too easy during this stage for mothers to give up breastfeeding and reach for the formula.

Unscrupulous milk powder manufacturers are aware of this, and do everything they can to make the decision to stop breastfeeding easier for a mother by handing out free product samples. These last just long enough for the mother's milk to dry up, and the companies know that once this happens mothers have no alternative to buying their formula.

Nevertheless, it was surprising to learn that these companies are actually being allowed to push their products in hospitals and clinics here, and flouting UN codes and international protocols in the process.

One such infant formula manufacturer has long been the focus of a boycott in the Western world by groups who accuse it of using aggressive marketing strategies in the developing world. UNICEF believes promotion of infant formula in poor countries results in the death of as many as 1.5 million infants a year from three major causes: Mothers mixing the formula with contaminated water, giving the baby diarrhea; poorer families trying to save money by using less powder, resulting in malnutrition; and the simple fact that using formula denies an infant the disease-preventing antibodies it can only get from breast milk.

While most of these problems are not encountered in Taiwan, parents of newborn children should be able to at least receive educational and impartial advice on which option is best for them.

For this to happen, the government needs to ensure that manufacturers do not work together with healthcare professionals and medical institutions to pressure new parents into using their products.

Parents should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to feed their baby formula. They should not be subject to any form of coercion, whether it be company-sponsored advice from a healthcare worker or a strategically placed sample of powder at the local hospital.

Allowing multinational companies to practice self-regulation doesn't work. The only things that force such firms to take action are sustained and vocal campaigns or a public outcry, neither of which is likely to happen in this instance.

And while most governments are usually reluctant to act against the interests of big business, this issue should be seen as a matter of national interest, as the health of future generations is at stake. Evidence suggests that breast-fed babies benefit in a number of ways over formula-fed ones, such as suffering less infant diseases and less allergies later in life.

The Department of Health has already admitted that existing regulations are inadequate. Therefore, it is the department's responsibility to immediately strengthen the rules and punishments regulating the marketing of infant formula, and enforce the law to ensure compliance.

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