Infant milk formula firms in the Philippines are violating a law that bars them from promoting their product as a substitute for breastfeeding, World Health Organization officials said Wednesday.
The government and the milk companies are currently battling it out in the Supreme Court over the legality of a law that restricts the marketing of infant formula in a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"All the companies in one way or another violate the national code and the international code as well," Alessandro Iellamo from the WHO Philippines office, told a press conference. In Asia, the Philippines and Palau both bar companies from marketing infant formula as a breast milk substitute for babies under the age of one.
This is in line with an international code established by the WHO and the UN children's agency UNICEF about 25 years ago. WHO regional director Shigeru Omi said failure to breastfeed led to the deaths of 16,000 children in the Philippines each year. Although he would not say infant formula caused these deaths, he noted that the number of Filipino infants who are exclusively breastfed until the age of five months fell to 16 percent in 2003 from 20 percent in 1998.
Omi said infant formula companies spend more than 100 million dollars a year to market their products in the Philippines and that Filipinos spend 465 million dollars annually on milk substitutes. He and other health officials said breast milk was still far healthier and more economical than infant formula which they said was often improperly prepared in non-sterile conditions.
"We need to do something about the aggressive promotion of breast milk substitutes," warned UNICEF nutrition project officer David Clark, saying there was "very little systematic monitoring and enforcement."
The officials said no company had ever been punished for violating the law restricting promotion of infant formula that was passed in 1986. They said the law did not prohibit the selling of infant formula but merely barred it from being promoted as a substitute for breast milk which is what the companies were doing, often with the help of health care professionals.
At the Supreme Court, the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines is challenging a Health Department order that would extend the ban on promoting infant formula for children up to two years old.