Monday, January 21, 2008

A sanctity of life issue in the Philippines

I've been blogging about women and the Bible recently, hoping to offer a fresh and challenging perspective to the traditional interpretation of gender roles. I interrupt this series to present a news story that not only affects women, but also their newborn babies.

This is a story about American businesses taking advantage of poor, uninformed mothers, using them for profit, and then leaving them with the negative health results. Southern Baptists like to talk about the "sanctity of life." We even have a special Sunday on which to recognize it. This is a sanctity of life issue. Read, get angry, and then do something about it.
Almost every mother in the Western world knows that, whenever possible, breast feeding is the best way to provide one's infant with balanced, age-specific nutrition, and immunities that prevent infections. Medical research shows that formula-fed babies can suffer poor nutrition, stunted growth, and decreased IQ, along with numerous life-long risks.

Why then, in the Philippines, as in much of the global South, is infant formula powder a booming industry? Because US-based infant formula companies, including Wyeth and Mead Johnson, and European-based companies, including Glaxo-SmithKline and Novartis, spend $100 million every year advertising their lucrative breast-milk substitutes in the Philippines and lying to the Filipino people about the benefits of infant formula over breast milk.

Television ads for formula feature prodigy violinists and boast of "brain building blocks," and "IQ nutrition systems." These and other false advertisements lead Filipino women to believe that their bodies do not produce enough milk to nourish a child. To make matters worse, health professionals in the Philippines often agree to promote formula to their patients in return for incentives and commissions. Ever notice the pharmaceutical advertisements plastered all over your doctor's office. Well, this is is the same kind of problem, but on steroids.

Representatives from formula makers will distribute brand-name merchandise and samples to healthcare facilities in order to entice new mothers into formula consumerism. If families take the bait and start bottle-feeing with the free powder, milk production in the mother decreases. Then, when the free samples run out, mothers are faced with the artificial need to bottlefeed their infants. Impoverished families then struggle to buy powdered formula, often choosing to lessen the powder-to-water ratio to make it last longer.

(Do I even need to mention the fact that since infant formula must be mixed with water, it is especially dangerous for those living in areas with poor access to clean drinking water? If mothers mix their child's substitute milk with dirty water, infants' weak immune systems are exposed to all sorts of bacteria and viruses, which can cause cycle after cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition.)

As a result of the marketing geniuses at Wyeth, Novartis, Mead Johnson, and Glaxo-SmithKline, who received hefty bonuses for their fantastic work in the Philippines, a whopping 84% of Filipino babies are now formula-fed. What is even more astounding is that this is the reality even though the cost of bottle-feeding is at least $43 a month, in country where the average income is $118 a month. And, current statistics show that nearly one out of over three babies in the Philippines is underweight at age 1.

Some of my readers will know that this is not the first time a formula company used lies and trickery to entice poor mothers to become dependent upon their products. The Infant Formula Action Coalition started a boycott of Nestle products because of their unethical marketing practices in the developing world. The boycott stretched from 1977-1984 and then from 1989-the present. In 1981, even the World Health Organization was compelled to get involved, ratifying an international code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes.

After a long legal battle with US-based formula companies, in 2007, the Supreme Court of the Philippines finally ruled that some of WHO recommendations, adopted by the Filipino Department of Health, could be put into effect. For now, breast-milk substitute labels will have to state the risks of inappropriate formula feeding and there will be some limitations on advertising with "pictures or texts that idealize infant and milk formula."

Despite this small victory, Dr. Marsden Wagner, former WHO Director of Women's and Children's Health, has this to say: "Women are being brainwashed about infant formula. Breastfeeding will increase only when there is control of this industry by the government through laws and regulations which ensure women get the right, scientific information [and when] doctors and hospitals are 'baby friendly.'"

Perhaps is it appropriate that I am posting this story on the day in the US that we celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1967, when speaking against the Vietnam War, Dr. King said, "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor." I hope that we can say the same.

And, for the executive fat-cats who watch while gross injustice plagues poor women and children in the developing world, I hear the words of Amos echoing in my head:

"You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts."
- Amos 5:11-12

(Sources: BBC: Breastfeeding declines in Asia, UNICEF: Philippines: Mothers demand truth about infant formula, UNICEF: Philippine Supreme Court lifts ban on Milk Code, Asia Times: Spilled corporate milk in the Philippines, and Sharon Craig, "Milking the Innocent," Sojourners [Feb 2008]: 8-9.)


UnderMidnight said...

Amen to that. Seriously.

traveller said...

Emily, you are correct about this. We should do what we can individually and collectively to affect change in this area.

Some clarifications: Wyeth and Mead Johnson are US based companies. Mead Johnson is a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb. But Novartis is Swiss based and GlaxoSmithKline is based in the UK.

Greed and misrepresentation are not the exclusive domain of Americans.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Traveller, thank you for the clarifications. I have edited the post to reflect them.

Mel said...

Thanks for the information! Is there any concern, because of their poverty, the mother's are under nourished and their milk is inadequate? I'm not saying less adequate than formula, I'm just wondering if there is any correlation?

Strider said...

You have described accurately the situation in the country I live in. Most mothers do not know how to breast feed and even the grandmothers have very little knowledge left to give. The result is a lot of really malnourished babies. My mother-in-law was a part of the Nestle boycott and I thought she was silly then- I know she was right now.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


That's a great question, but I do not have an answer. It seems logical that women who are malnourished would produce milk that is less than ideal, but I don't know for sure. That may be the reason that infant formula companies give for marketing so heavily to these poor countries, but ultimately, it seems, their product is far worse than even the milk of malnourished mothers.

Love you, my friend,


traveller said...

On the question of whether the milk of the mothers in developing countries is sufficient for babies, there are a couple of thoughts to consider. In the Philippines, with some exceptions, even poor people eat sufficiently well to be nourished in order to breast feed.

There are countries where malnurishment is a significant issue. But, think about it, if they are too poor to purchase food they certainly cannot afford baby formula, which is much more expensive than a mother eating a good meal and breast feeding her baby. If it is a country where the ability to find food is an issue there certainly will not be any baby formula available either.

One of the advantages of breast feeding in poor countries is that the money, always in short supply, that would be spent on formula can go to other important needs instead.

Rex Ray said...

Thanks for your concern for the false advertisement shown in your post.

But how about the lie of “Enriched” on white bread? Everything that shortens ‘shelf life’ is removed and some chemicals are added.
The poor and uneducated buy it because it’s cheap. If pigs are fed nothing but white bread, it doesn’t take long before they die.

It’s also proven but not advertised, the more ‘homogenized milk’, drunk by nations, the higher death rate from heart attacks.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Rex Ray,

You are correct. There are thousands, maybe millions, of instances of false advertising in food occuring in the States every day. So much so that my new motto for buying food is, "Trust no one": not the USDA, not the FDA, not anyone who is receiving profit in any way from what you are consuming. I want to know enough about my food to make informed choices and maybe even spend some extra money to make sure I'm not eating garbage.

But, unfortunately, for those who are barely getting by, the cheapest food happens to be the worst for you. When you're poor, the choice between a McDonald's $.99 double-cheeseburger and a $5.00 organic salad is easy. And, don't even get me started on the trash we serve our children in public schools and after school programs. Make no mistake: food is a justice issue in the United States.

I think the difference in the Philippines, however, is that companies are purposefully targeting the ignorant and using bribes with government and health care officials to keep the public ignorant and dependent on their product. Maybe that is happening in the States too, but I don't have any specific story to share about it.

Grace to you, Rex Ray,


Rex Ray said...

Very well said. I agree that our nation is unhealthy because of the poor quality of food.

And about “targeting”…where do grocery stores put the worst choice of food? It’s in the check-out line where kids beg and cry for it. So many times I’ve seen a big fuss between mothers and their children.

“Put that back!”
“I want it!”

The only thing I’ve known of my children ‘stealing’ was candy when they were very small, but maybe a ‘forced’ apology was good for them.

Yes, the food industry knows how to push their worst products.
As smoking ads were removed from TV, I wish a law would make these products out of reach and out of sight of children.