Reader S.M. adds her voice to our ongoing forum on the World Health Organization’s 20-year campaign efforts to discourage Third World women from bottle-feeding their babies with commercial infant formula. On May 25 WHO’s general assembly approved a resolution that would require manufacturers of formula to place warning labels on their products, a measure that goes far beyond the Food and Drug Administration’s thorough regulation of infant formula here in the United States and effectively treats the products not as food but as dangerous substances like tobacco. The IWF vigorously opposed the WHO resolution (click here and here and here).

S.M. disagrees:

“I am disappointed in your campaign against the WHO’s resolution which would discourage dishonest marketing techniques by infant formula manufacturers, with the goal of increasing breast-feeding to benefit the health of babies, the health of mothers, and the health of an economy less burdened by increasing health care costs and the unnecessary cost of a human milk substitute.

“What alarms me more than anything is the false implication that this resolution attempts to ban infant formulas or aims to denigrate mothers who use formula. It merely prevents marketing techniques which obscure the truth about the risks of not breatfeeding. It allows women the opportunity to make informed decisions for themselves and their families that are free of coercion or manipulation. As a Republican and proud supporter of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, I support a free market. But a free market cannot exist where companies are allowed manipulate the public, who do not have the benefit of years of medical training and a thorough review of the literature that would enable them to recognize the falsehoods.

“As a physician, I can assure you that the evidence is overwhelming that formula, while being preferable to homemade concoctions and useful in the rare situations where babies cannot be breast-fed, is substantially inferior to breast milk. I repeat, infant formula is inferior to human milk. How can anyone claim to support the rights of women and children when they would permit companies to mislead families into making unhealthy choices? If a family makes the decision to use formula, this resolution will do nothing to stand in their way. It only prevents a sabotage campaign by companies who are legitimately bound only to their bottom line.

“The restriction on the infant formula manufacturers is minimal. The potential benefit to the health of millions of children is astronomical. I ask you to please reconsider your stand against the WHO resolution. Republican women have done so much over the years to improve the health of women and children, harkening back to First Lady Nancy Reagan’s campaign against drug use. When faced with a conflict between two ideals (free market and the health of our babies), please consider the greater good.”

We at the IWF agree with you wholeheartedly, and we’ve asserted our agreement many times, that a mother’s breast-milk is indeed the very best nutrition for a newborn infant.

But the WHO resolution isn’t aimed at curbing dishonest marketing techniques such as misleading women into thinking that formula is superior to their own mother’s milk. It’s the work of fanatics who, for example, have been urging since the early 1980s that formula be treated not as food but as a “nutritional medicine” that should be administered only on the advice of a health professional. That takes the decision whether or not to use formula away from the mother and puts it into the hands of bureaucrats. In 1981, for example, WHO declared that the “usual marketing practices” applicable to other foods weren’t suitable for baby formula, so the organization not only banned the advertising of formula but barred the use of pictures of babies on the formula containers. This is analogous to the “Joe Camel” bans applicable to cigarette advertising here in America. You only have to visit the baby aisle in a U.S. supermarket to see how much more draconian the WHO regulations are than anything we would tolerate in this country.

Of course the promoters of the WHO resolution would like to see American mothers actively discouraged from bottle-feeding, too. One WHO document baldly declares: “Breastfeeding should continue up to the age of two years and beyond.” Unless you live in a hippie commune, this is an utterly unrealistic guideline. Yet WHO wants to extend its regulatory net not only over infant formula but over the “complementary foods” such as baby cereals, juice, and applesauce with which most mothers start the weaning process when their babies are a few months old.

If the WHO restrictions were simply a matter of giving mothers adequate information so that they could make informed choices about whether to continue breast-feeding, you’d have an excellent point, S.M. But surely, as a physician, you surely know that the real dangers from infant formula don’t arise from the formula itself but from its use in conjunction with untreated water or nutritionally deficient home-concocted substances. And as a working woman, you surely know that it’s difficult for most women, especially in poor countries, to combine the holding of a job with extended breast-feeding. Unfortunately, the WHO resolution is a product of ideology, not concern for health–and I think that the money WHO spends to frighten women away from infant formula would be better spent affording Third World countries the safe water supply that we take for granted here