Launched on Tuesday, the publication details practices used by the €48bn ($55bn) formula industry that it claims compromises child nutrition and violates international commitments.
These include unregulated and invasive online targeting, sponsored advice networks and helplines; offered promotions and free gifts; and influenced health workers’ training and recommendations.
“This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.”
Need for robust policies
The findings, gathered from a survey of 8,500 parents and pregnant women, and 300 health workers in cities across the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Vietnam.
The survey revealed exposure to formula milk marketing reached 84% of all women surveyed in the United Kingdom; 92% of women in Vietnam and 97% in China, increasing their likelihood of choosing formula feeding.
“False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a substantial barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers,” says UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.
“We need robust policies, legislation and investments in breastfeeding to ensure that women are protected from unethical marketing practices -- and have access to the information and support they need to raise their families.”
In response to the report, the International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI), an international association representing the maternal, infant and young child nutrition sector said its members were “committed to improving nutrition and providing the highest quality products that help meet the nutritional needs of mothers, infants and children.”
“When breastfeeding is not an option the only recognised and proven alternatives are scientifically developed and clinically demonstrated breastmilk substitutes (BMS), which are manufactured in accordance with internationally recognised standards, (Codex Alimentarius) and local regulations.
“The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (WHO Code) covers any and all forms of marketing, including digital marketing,” the group added.
“ISDI members comply with all laws and regulations in the countries in which they operate and have extensive internal approval and audit processes in place to ensure their online and offline content meets all legal, regulatory and nutritional science requirements.
“In addition, manufacturers of infant and young child nutrition have their own internal and external mechanisms for policy compliance.
“Our members support efforts by national governments to ensure compliance with all national laws and regulations.”
BSNA supporting efforts
The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), the representative of the specialist nutrition industry in the UK echoed similar comments adding, “manufacturers of infant and young child nutrition are working to actively raise awareness of the WHO Code principles and applicable laws through education and training, as well as monitoring independent websites to identify regulatory and compliance issues.
“BSNA members share a common goal with the WHO and national governments: that parents are supported with appropriate and up to date information to make informed decisions on caring for their babies.
“We support their efforts to ensure that everyone in the digital landscape complies with national laws and regulations.”