Ban on formula milk ads begins in 2007

But the Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHCAP), which opposed the ban, asked the Supreme Court on July 13 to nullify the revised IRR, claiming it endangers the lives of infants by inadvertently misinforming mothers on their children's health. The Supreme Court issued a restraining order and asked the Department of Health to comment on the petition filed by PHCAP.

The banning of advertisements and promotions is intended to advance breastfeeding as an economical and nutritional means for infant and child health, Borja, told reporters after the launching of a local mall's breastfeeding stations Monday. Borja said the move is directed to revert a decreasing trend in breastfeeding in the Philippines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Childrens’ Fund, (Unicef) recommend at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding for optimal infant growth, development, and health. This means that the infant is fed breast milk alone.

According to the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), the average duration of exclusive breastfeeding in the Philippines went down from 1.4 months in 1998 to 24 days in 2003.   

The NDHS said only 1.4% of babies 6 to 7 months old in 2003 were exclusively breastfed.

The UNICEF estimates that in the Philippines, the minimum monthly cost of feeding an infant using formula milk is P2,000 while mother's breast milk costs nothing.

An infant fed with formula milk, UNICEF added, is 25 times more likely to die of diarrhea than a breastfed infant.

In the Philippines, the WHO estimated around P430 million spent yearly on hospitalization, health consultations and medicines for illnesses due to formula-feeding.  

The revised guidelines are intended to remove hindrances to promote breastfeeding, Borja said, citing that infant formula milk ads have provided mothers with an option to breast milk.

But formula milk is a very costly substitute to breast milk, she said. Filipinos spend around P21.5 billion per year on formula milk. Promotions and advertisement expenses account for around half the price of milk.

The National Code for the Marketing of breast milk substitutes, breast milk supplements and other related products (Executive Order 51 of 1986 signed by President Corazon Aquino) or the Milk Code, safeguards breasfeeding, Borja said.

The Code bans the use of any picture or text in information and educational materials, which may idealize the use of breast milk substitutes;  prohibits giving away samples and supplies to  public hospitals and health institutions and personnel of health care institutions; prohibits the point-of-sale advertising, giving of samples or any promotion devices to induce sales directly to consumers at retail level and the use of health care system to promote breast milk substitutes.

The Code also mandates health workers to encourage and promote breastfeeding.                

But records from the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) showed that milk companies violate the Code. From July 2001 to December 2004, a total of 63 violations were recorded, with 27 cases on distribution of print ads without approval by an inter-agency committee.

Last year, Dr. Nicholas Alipui, the UNICEF's representative in the Philippines asked the Philippine government to fast track the amendment of the Milk Code, to tighten its provisions. He sought for the covering not only of infant formula but all milk products for infants and young children up to the age of two or three. Also, he sought to ban the advertisement and promotion of milk products for the “0 to 2 or 3 years old children.”

He also sought to ban ties between public health and nutrition sectors at all levels, and the milk manufacturers and distributors covered by the Code, among other mechanisms.

The DOH issued a revised IIR on May 16, banning advertisements, among others.

The PHCAP in its petition to the Supreme Court, argued that the DOH went overboard in its issuance of the IRR by prohibiting the free flow of information regarding the nutritional content of infant formula vis-à-vis breast milk and the other traditional milk substitutes. They said this will only result in preventing much needed knowledge on proper infant feeding.

The petitioners contested the DOH regulation for its "flawed premise" that "breastfeeding substitutes are hazardous to health and that breastfeeding is the exclusive means to nourish infants." They said the impetus of the code was to regulate the proper use of breast milk substitutes in certain cases where breastfeeding is not appropriate or possible.

(Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)