Code regulating ads for breastmilk substitutes still not implemented in HK

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


Breastfeeding is a public health issue. For the health of all mothers and babies, it should be regarded as the norm, and should not have to compete with the commercial promotion of breastmilk substitutes and artificial feeding.

Mothers do have a choice. If, for whatever reason, parents elect to formula-feed their infants, their decision should be respected and supported by health professionals. However, the decision should be an informed choice based on full understanding of evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding and risks of formula feeding. When these health messages are overshadowed by misleading nutritional and health claims of infant milk formulas exaggerating the advantages of formula feeding, parents' motivation to breastfeed is undermined.

To encourage breastfeeding, the World Health Organisation and Unicef developed the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981. The code in regulating marketing practices, such as adverts, not only protects breastfeeding infants but also those who require formula milk for whatever reason. The code requires the labels of containers of formula milk to provide information about its safe storage, preparation and use, and that its composition meets WHO food standards. However, after 20 years, Hong Kong has yet to put the code into practice.

Indeed, there are still misconceptions about the code's scope. Some people think it prohibits the sale of breastmilk substitutes or that it regulates only infant formula for use by babies up to six months but not that for older infants and young children. Because of the extensive adverts of follow-up formula, some think that children older than one year must drink such formula milk. In fact, the code regulates only the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. It does not ban their sale. Follow-up formula for use from six months to two years of age is also covered by the code. Children over one and not breastfed can drink whole cow's milk. Follow-up formula is not a necessity.

To implement the code in the SAR, the government will be announcing a voluntary code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes for Hong Kong. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association urges officials to ensure the code is implemented effectively here. Otherwise, implementation through legislation would be required so that the health of children and mothers in Hong Kong can be better protected.

Dr Patricia Ip, chairman, Unicef Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association