It would be wise for the White House to change its opposition to an international code of ethics that would curb the marketing of infant formula in developing nations. The United States plans to provide the only negative vote this week when the issue comes before delegates from 157 nations attending a World Health assembly meeting in Geneva.
Free enterprise is not at stake, as the administration contends. At issue are questionable marketing practices which are causing many thousands of unsophisticated mothers in the third world to believe that commercial baby formulas are preferable to breast-feeding. Moreover, because of misinformation, ignorance, poverty, and climatic conditions, infant formula is oftern misused and, as a result, said to be harming mothers and contributing to infant mortality.
The proposed code is strictly voluntary and would simply serve as a guideline in drawing up national laws. It would urge governments to prohibit the promotion of infant formulas to the general public, to restrict the distribution of free samples, and to require warning and information labels. Significantly, the code was drawn up with the active involvement of the US government and infant formula companies which saw the need for protective legislation. It would be up to each country to pass its own laws, and one would expect manufacturers to put their own case during the discussion and enactment of such codes.
Thus the US would lose nothing by casting a positive vote. It would, on the contrary, be signalling its appreciation of the concerns of third-world countries about the health of their children -- and its recognition that free enterprise mean s responsible free enterprise.