Parallel trading

Baby milk marketing ban a blunt weapon that will hurt Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 2:40am


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The proposed advertising ban on infant formula milk sets a dangerous precedent of government over-intervention. This drastic measure will endanger consumer access to information and commercial freedom of speech, both of which are cornerstones of Hong Kong's free market competitiveness.

The draft Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Formula Milk seeks to ban all marketing activities on formula milk for children less than 36 months of age. But formula milk is not a hazardous product like tobacco. It is perfectly legal and nutritional, a World Health Organisation-approved alternative to breast milk.

The Task Force on Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes asserts that "Hong Kong's low breastfeeding rate is contributed [to] by aggressive formula milk marketing" without providing any evidence of the sort. Meanwhile, it ignores widely-documented studies by hospitals and universities that show a failure to breastfeed is down to poor health, work pressure, lack of breastfeeding facilities and sometimes a lack of support from partners.

Following this logic from the authorities, why not ban the promotion of fast food to lower obesity or ban beer promotion to tackle drink driving?

Over-regulation discourages reputable players from Hong Kong, hurts our free market reputation, and adversely impacts on employment opportunities and consumer choice.

Hong Kong's sophisticated consumers have always enjoyed a high degree of access to information, enabling informed choice. There is no reason why Hong Kong mothers should be barred while information on formula milk for children above six to 12 months is freely accessible in the US, the EU, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even the mainland.

The public has a right to honest advertising content. The authorities could implement a mechanism, similar to pharmaceuticals, to ensure no marketing claims violate the Undesirable Medical Advertisements Ordinance before placement. The Communications Authority already has the responsibility to vet inappropriate advertising, while the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance guards against misrepresentations. These monitoring mechanisms need to be enforced.

The Department of Health should address the underlying reasons for poor breastfeeding documented in properly researched studies, and ask itself if a marketing code can truly boost Hong Kong's low breastfeeding rates. A code, if necessary, should be developed with public and industry representatives to protect the core values of Hong Kong: consumer rights, free access to information, legitimate marketing operations, and free market competitiveness.

Clara Shek, chairperson, Issues Committee, the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong