News recently broke that the U.S. delegation at the UN tried to squash a resolution that would encourage breastfeeding worldwide earlier this year. While the resolution ultimately passed, the U.S. was successful in watering it down to remove technical assistance to nations seeking to stop “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. Nestlé and the formula industry have a long and sordid history of unethical marketing practices around the world. And Nestlé continues to promote its product aggressively, reportedly violating WHO codes with misleading marketing claims about the wholesomeness of formula (such as marketing formula as “closest to,” “inspired by,” and “following the example of” human breastmilk.)
This is more of the same bad behavior from companies bent on profit over the well-being of babies and mothers. Nestlé’s marketing practices were first exposed in the 1970s when its aggressive marketing led many mothers who would otherwise breastfeed to believe that formula was a superior option. But research has shown that isn’t true. Now, the WHO recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of age.
This pro-breastfeeding stance by the world’s health authorities cuts into profits. Nestlé was the world’s largest infant formula maker in 2016, with about 22 percent of the market. The entire industry spends billions on marketing around the country to ensure those profits keep flowing. Save the Children, an international child health organization, estimates that infant formula producers spent over $7 billion in marketing in 2015 – spending that far outweighs the budget of health authorities to encourage and support breastfeeding.
This disparity in the marketing wars has real casualties: a study in The Lancet estimates that the deaths of over 823,000 children and 20,000 mothers would be prevented each year in low- and middle income countries if breastfeeding were adopted at close-to-universal levels.
Nestlé also targets new moms and other vulnerable populations with another flagship product: bottled water (even though over 64% of bottled water is essentially tap water, and bottled water is less regulated than tap water.)
Water is essential to life. Breastfeeding is a free, healthy option recommended for the vast majority of mothers around the world to feed their infants when they have the ability and support to do so. That Nestlé continues its underhanded marketing tactics for both bottled water and infant formula remains an egregious example of how corporations continue an assault on our health and environment. The latest outrage at the UN shows the influence these companies have on determining policy, to the detriment of the same populations they target with their advertising.