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Industry uses lack of knowledge of mothers to increase sales of infant formulas, say researchers


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A series of publications on breastfeeding released this Tuesday night (7) by the scientific journal The Lancet shows how the infant formula industry uses the lack of knowledge and the desire of mothers and fathers to offer the best to their children to increase sales, reducing the supply of breast milk.

Currently, less than 50% of babies in the world are breastfed, resulting in economic losses estimated at US$ 341 billion per year, as breastfeeding reduces the risks of infectious diseases, malnutrition and mortality in childhood and obesity and chronic diseases in childhood. adulthood. In addition, mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

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According to the series, 1 in 3 newborns in low- and middle-income countries receive formulas in the first three days of life –a practice strongly associated with delayed initiation of breastfeeding– and only 50% of newborns are placed on the breast in first hour of life.

The initiative reveals that behaviors such as persistent crying, agitation and short periods of sleep are exploited by the industry and treated as pathological, serving as a justification for the introduction of formulas. However, in fact, they are natural to babies and are part of their development.

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Without this knowledge, mothers judge that their children are hungry and that their milk is insufficient or inadequate. Approximately half of mothers around the world report “milk insufficiency” as the main reason for introducing infant formula.

The series also shows how companies in the sector, with annual sales estimated at US$ 55 billion and spending around US$ 3 billion on marketing, advertise that their products help relieve colic and raise the IQ (intelligence quotient) of women. children without scientific evidence of these properties.

Aluisio de Barros, professor at the Faculty of Medicine at UFPel (Federal University of Pelotas) and one of the authors of the series, says that not all the problems reported in the document are observed in Brazil because the country is a signatory of the International Code of Marketing of Substitute Leite Materno, from 1981. We don’t have here, for example, formulas with packages that show babies wearing glasses using abacuses.

On the other hand, some achievements of the country are under threat, reports epidemiologist Cesar Victora, professor emeritus at UFPel and also author of the series, which, in addition to Brazilian researchers, includes scientists from countries such as the United States, Mexico, Australia, Equatorial Guinea, Switzerland and Malaysia.

“I’ve been studying breastfeeding for over 40 years and I don’t know of any country in the world that has made as much progress in increasing the duration of breastfeeding as Brazil. In the 1980s, the average duration of breastfeeding in Brazil was two and a half months and breastfeeding exclusivity practically did not exist, all mothers gave water, tea or other milk in addition to breast milk. Now, the average duration of breastfeeding in the country is more than 12 months”, he says.

The epidemiologist attributes the success to controlling the advertisement of the formulas and training health professionals. But, he adds, there is “a new generation of professionals who need to be trained in the benefits of breastfeeding.”

Another important measure for the country, says Victora, would be the resumption of campaigns on the advantages of breastfeeding. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen these campaigns, so common for 20 years. This is the great challenge: to get back what we had. We’ve already achieved a lot and we need to get back to it, otherwise we run the risk of a setback in breastfeeding levels in Brazil.”

The authors also highlight the need for a new international treaty that encourages breastfeeding; delimit connections and conflicts of interest between industry, scientists and health workers; and encompass care with advertising formulas not only in media such as newspapers and television, but in messaging applications and social networking sites.

“In the same way that the industry uses multiple strategies, we must also use creative strategies to reach mothers and break the idea that breastfeeding is old-fashioned and technology is the formula”, argues Barros.

The series also argues that breastfeeding should be embraced by society, including longer maternity leave, paid and without risk of job loss; facilities for nursing mothers who return to work; greater support from the health system during pregnancy and after birth; and access to accurate information so that the family can make decisions free from industry influence.

“We are not saying that the formula itself is bad”, highlights Barros. “There are situations in which it is important, such as those in which the woman cannot breastfeed or, despite having support and knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, chooses not to breastfeed. What we say is that the industry wants to sell as much as possible, and then conflict enters.”

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