More than 30 years ago, advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations launched a public boycott against the Nestlé over the company’s promotion of their infant formula as better than breastfeeding. According to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), infants living in unhygienic conditions in poorer countries are 6 to 25 times more likely to die from diarrhea and four times more likely to die of pneumonia when fed formula instead of breast milk. For this reason, global health organizations, including UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), suggest that mothers exclusively breastfeed their children for the first six months.
The boycott started because, despite the benefits of breastfeeding, Nestlé reportedly used misleading advertising in many developing countries, claiming that their formula had physical and mental benefits for infants. These advertising claims, according to boycott advocates, undermines breastfeeding and in turn jeopardizes the health of children. Furthermore, Nestlé is accused of giving health workers de-facto bribes (e.g. paying for flights to international medical conferences) to promote the use of infant formula in hospitals.
The latest saga in the battle between boycott advocates and Nestlé is in Laos, where, in an open letter [pdf] NGOs accused the company of:
- Public advertising and promotion of breast-milk substitutes.
- Promotion in hospitals and health care facilities of breast-milk substitutes
- Labelling of infant formula shows that they are to be used by infants from birth, thus misleading mothers from exclusive breastfeeding their infants for the first six months of life.
- Labels are not translated into the local language: labels in English and Thai are found throughout the country.
- Even if the labels are translated into Lao language, the marketing approach of Nestle does not give enough public health consideration to the local fact that the poorest and most vulnerable mothers and families are ethnic, and do not speak or read Lao language.
- Nestle representatives actively visit hospitals, especially paediatric wards and nurseries.
- Nestle representatives give different types of incentives to doctors and nurses, such as organizing and funding trips and gifts
- Conducting seminars for health workers in which misinformation is given.
- Conducting promotions of formula milk at pre-schools in which misinformation is given.
- Advertising is promoting unscientific and unsubstantiated claims that formula increases intelligence and enhances immunity. This creates a situation where family income is being spent unnecessarily on formula for infants and young children, keeping households poor.
If true, the actions of Nestlé in Laos show why the international community must take stronger action against corporations exploiting developing countries to enlarge their profit margins — particularly when it comes to health.
Note: If you are interested in reading more, check out UN Dispatch’s own Alanna Shaikh arguing against sending infant formula to Darfur and other crisis zones.
Photo credit: Simon Oosterman