Top Hospitals Putting an End to Formula Marketing to New Moms

November 22, 2013

Despite a wealth of evidence that breastfeeding provides the most health benefits for infants, many barriers — including rigid work conditions and lack of family or community support — can interfere with a woman’s ability to start breastfeeding, or to keep breastfeeding for at least six months.

Health advocates have long criticized the popular hospital practice of distributing infant formula to new mothers, because doing so descreases the length of time that women breastfeed — even when they have indicated a desire to try breastfeeding, and sometimes instead of providing lactation support (read this previous post, which discusses a report on Chicago hospitals in low-income neighborhoods).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 77 percent of infants in the United States start out being breastfed, which is an increase over recent years, yet fewer than half are still breastfeeding at the six-month mark.

Many hospitals have banned pharmaceutical or other industries from providing marketing materials directly to doctors, in order to avoid conflicts of interest, but many hospitals still provide free formula samples directly to patients.

A new report from Public Citizen, however, suggests that more of the top hospitals in the country are agreeing to limit distribution.

The consumer advocacy organization looked at the top hospitals in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, both those with the gynecology specialty and maternal/newborn services and those on the general Honor Roll. It then surveyed those hospitals about their policies and practices, and checked against data from the national Ban the Bags campaign, which grew out of a Massachusetts effort to stop aggressive formula marketing.

Some of Public Citizen’s key findings:

  • Sixty-seven percent of top gynecology hospitals in gynecology reported not giving out bags sponsored by formula companies, formula samples, or other formula-related promotional materials
  • An additional 11 percent (5 of 45) limited samples and sponsored bags to those who request them, moms who are already planning to formula feed, or to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit patients
  • Eighty-two percent (14 of 17) of the best overall hospitals reported having a policy or practice against distributing these materials

Public Citizen recommends that the remaining hospitals on these lists also ban formula distribution, and discuss other interventions that public health departments and state legislatures can take to restrict the practice. As the report notes:

Numerous studies show that women are likely to breastfeed less, and for shorter durations, if they receive formula samples and promotional materials in hospital discharge packs. Formula bag distribution effectively influences new mothers to use formula because it sends a powerful message that hospitals endorse formula feeding, even where breastfeeding in hospitals is promoted.

One major effort to improve the support for breastfeeding in hospitals is the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, endorsed by several major medical organizations. The Initiative sets standards for baby-friendliness, including breastfeeding support. The Initiative’s guidelines and evaluation criteria states that in baby-friendly hospitals, staff members should not receive donations from breast milk substitute providers, and mothers and their families should not be given marketing materials for formula or gift packs containing formula. The Baby-Friendly principles have been endorsed by several major medical organizations.

Ban the Bags provides a toolkit for advocating against these formula sample bags, which can be downloaded from its website, as a resource for taking action in your own community. As Ban the Bags puts it: “Hospitals should market health, and nothing else.”

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