Every day, a billion-dollar battle is waged for a baby’s first food. It takes place the world over, from maternity wards in Uganda to OBGYN offices in Manhattan, from corner stores in Detroit to market stalls in Thailand. And it is fueled by a handful of large and powerful multinational food and drug companies that manufacture the bulk of the world’s infant formula and pour hundreds of millions of dollars each year into marketing their products.
As many of us know, the infant formula marketing onslaught begins before baby is born—sometimes, as soon as a few weeks after we find out we’re pregnant. Free samples, cute gifts branded with formula company logos, clever commercials, and coupons galore are all harmless right? Not quite. All this marketing is designed to do one thing and one thing only—to get you to start using infant formula, as soon as possible and as much as possible.
And while formula itself is a necessity for many babies, the marketing of it is not. For starters, marketing drives up the cost of formula. It is one of the industry’s dirty little secrets: free samples aren’t really free. Formula-feeding families end up paying dearly for these so-called free samples because the cost of making and distributing the samples (often in hospitals and doctors’ offices) is baked into the high price of name-brand formula. It is important to remember that for many parents in the U.S and throughout the world, infant formula is a costly but necessary expense that strains the family budget. The high cost of the product is one reason why financially-strapped parents sometimes end up diluting formula to make it last longer, inadvertently putting their babies at risk for malnutrition. The marketing of formula is also engineered to undermine women’s confidence to breastfeed. Infant formula companies very often employ messaging and tactics (and even messengers such as health care workers and pediatricians) that prey upon nursing mothers’ fears and anxieties—am I making enough milk? is my baby getting fed enough? is my baby getting all the nutrition he needs? This kind of marketing is not only predatory and unethical, it is also detrimental to the well-being of women and children. The more formula companies push their products, the less moms and babies benefit from breastfeeding and the more their health suffers. For mom, longer durations of breastfeeding is associated with lower risk of heart disease, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. For baby, breastfeeding protects against illnesses and infections and offers unparalleled brain-boosting benefits.
While the aggressive marketing of formula does little to help families, it does a lot to drive profits for infant formula companies and Wall Street. Make no mistake, infant formula is big business. Globally, annual sales of formula are projected to grow from about $45 billion to almost $71 billion in the next two years. Most of this growth is expected to come from emerging economies in Asia and Africa where high rates of child mortality and malnutrition persist. This global growth has meant huge profits for companies and has made formula company executives very wealthy. In fact, one of the highest paid chief executives in American business is the CEO of Abbott Labs, the maker of Similac. The U.S. accounts for about $4 billion in sales each year for formula makers, though sales here have been stagnant as breastfeeding rates have been inching upward. Even the slightest increase in breastfeeding rates can spell trouble because every breastfed baby is a lost sale for formula companies. Pressure by Wall Street investors to boost profits have led formula companies to spend big on promoting their brands and pushing new “super premium” (i.e. high-priced and heavily marketed) product offerings. It has also led companies to be even more aggressive in their promotion of formula: marketing their products as “closer than ever to breast milk”, making bogus and misleading health claims on product packaging, and pushing supplementation for breastfed babies by stoking parents’ fears about underfeeding.
As many families struggle with the high cost of formula-feeding and mothers deal with confusing and conflicting messages on how and what to feed their babies, it is time we take a stand against the aggressive promotion of infant formula. Expensive advertising and marketing tactics and bogus product claims benefit no one except the big formula companies and Wall Street investors.
If you agree, join us in taking action. On Thursday, May 18th, we’re teaming up with Public Citizen, Best for Babes and ROSE for a day of action to send a message to infant formula companies that it’s time to put #HealthOverProfit. You can get involved in this day of action here. We hope you’ll join us in standing up for formula-feeding and breastfeeding families the world over and let formula companies know that our babies’ health is more important than their bottom lines.