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Formula Industry Lobbied To Tone Down Government Breastfeeding Ads

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This is a story about big companies and their Washington lobbyists. It could be a story about getting a tunnel built, regulating gas mileage or even securing a military contract. But in this case, it’s about infant formula companies influencing an ad campaign aimed at promoting breastfeeding.
The The Washington Post reported the story yesterday. Here’s a quick summary:
1. The Department of Health and Human Services ran a public health campaign a few years ago to promote breastfeeding. The ads aimed to convince mothers that their infants faced health risks if they did not breastfeed.
2. Some of the original ads showed baby bottle nipples on top of asthma inhalers or insulin dispensers for diabetes. The point of the ads, which included statistics, was that breastfeeding reduces the risk of these diseases.
3. Formula makers lobbied to get the ads changed and they succeeded. The ads were never seen by the public. Instead, they were replaced by pairs of dandelions (ie. breastfeeding reduces asthama), or two scoops of ice cream (breastfeeding reduces obesity), that evoked breasts.
4. Furthermore, HHS did not promote a study by its own Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of multiple studies on breast-feeding, which generally found breastfeeding was associated with fewer ear and gastrointestinal infections, and lower rates of diabetes, leukemia, obesity, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. (To read the report, look in the right hand column of the Post story, in the box that says On The Web, and read “Breastfeeding and Maternal Infant Health.”)
Now here are some paragraphs from The Washington Post story:

The formula industry’s intervention — which did not block the ads but helped change their content — is being scrutinized by Congress in the wake of last month’s testimony by former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona that the Bush administration repeatedly allowed political considerations to interfere with his efforts to promote public health.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating allegations from former officials that Carmona was blocked from participating in the breast-feeding advocacy effort and that those designing the ad campaign were overruled by superiors at the formula industry’s insistence.
“This is a credible allegation of political interference that might have had serious public health consequences,” said Waxman, a California Democrat…
Gina Ciagne, the office’s public affairs specialist for the campaign, said, “We were ready to go with our risk-based campaign — making breast-feeding a real public health issue — when the formula companies learned about it and came in to complain. Before long, we were told we had to water things down, get rid of the hard-hitting ads and generally make sure we didn’t somehow offend.”
Ciagne and others involved in the campaign said the pushback coincided with a high-level lobbying campaign by formula makers, which are mostly divisions of large pharmaceutical companies that are among the most generous campaign donors in the nation.
The campaign the industry mounted was a Washington classic — a full-court press to reach top political appointees at HHS, using influential former government officials, now working for the industry, to act as go-betweens
Two of the those involved were Clayton Yeutter, an agriculture secretary under President George H.W. Bush and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Joseph A. Levitt, who four months earlier directed the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition food safety center, which regulates infant formula. A spokesman for the International Formula Council said both were paid by a formula manufacturer to arrange meetings at HHS….
The industry substantially increased its own advertising as soon as the HHS campaign was launched. According to a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, formula companies spent about $30 million in 2000 to advertise their products. In 2003 and 2004, when the campaign was underway, infant formula advertising increased to nearly $50 million.

So there you have it. Washington D.C. at its finest. For me, while I think breastfeeding is best, I still it as a matter of personal choice. A mom has to decide what will work best for her and her baby. Even so, it is sickening to see the inner workings of the formula industry. Of course we’re talking about businesses here. And businesses is designed to maximize profits. It’s just a shame that for some companies, doing so can have serious health consequences for our children.

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