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Milk formula goes on trial in Asia

Health experts at a summit in the Philippines this week are urging East Asian countries to tout breast milk's benefits.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand

For decades, moms everywhere have been told that "breast is best" for babies. Healthcare experts say that message goes double in the developing world, where clean water for bottle-feeding is a luxury and, they say, breast-feeding can be a key factor in an infant's survival.

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But global efforts to promote breast-feeding are stalling in East Asia, where many working mothers in urban areas are opting instead for infant formula.

The result, say UN officials and Asian health campaigners meeting this week in the Philippine capital of Manila, is a decline in breast-feeding in several countries, even while it's rising in Africa and other developing regions.

While the East Asian average for exclusive nursing is 35 percent for the first six months, that figure falls to 5 percent in Thailand, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Vietnam, the breast-feeding rate almost halved in four years, falling from 29 percent in 1998 to 15 percent in 2002.

Experts at the regional conference, organized by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WHO, say countries are backsliding in their efforts to tout the health benefits most physicians associate with breast milk. One of reasons for this trend, says a UNICEF expert, is multinational companies that dominate sales of breast-milk substitutes.

Health experts say US companies are among those using aggressive marketing to hawk infant formula in Asia's dynamic economies, the same kinds of tactics that sparked a boycott campaign of Nestle products in the 1970s. This led to the adoption in 1981 of a global marketing code for such products.

Targeted advertising for Asian wealth

A generation later, there is suspicion that milk companies are targeting gullible mothers in Asia with false advertising, contrary to the spirit of the code. Lost in the marketing deluge, say critics, is the scientific consensus that advocates exclusive breast-feeding, particularly for the first six months of a child's life.

Such tactics are common in developing Asian countries, where the market potential is greatest, says David Clark, a legal expert for UNICEF who advises countries on how to outlaw abusive marketing practices. As incomes rise and more women join the workforce, companies are zeroing in on Asia, which now accounts for 36 percent of global sales of infant formula.

"You have countries in Asia where people have more disposable income in the middle classes, so it becomes a target for aggressive promotions," he says. "And although it may be targeted at that population, the advertisements are seen by poorer members of the community who can't afford the product."

The battle over how to regulate marketing for milk formula has taken on particular prominence in the Philippines, which has sought to extend a 1986 law, known as the Milk Code. The law placed limits on formula companies' marketing practices.

Public-health officials want tougher rules in order to reverse a decline in breast-feeding in a country where nearly 1 in 3 infants are underweight at age 1.

The Philippine Supreme Court met Tuesday to hear a challenge from an industry group to the proposed new rules, which would tighten existing controls on advertising. The rules would also force manufacturers to include warnings of the risk of contaminated formula on their labels. The group says the Department of Health has overstepped its authority by extending the law.