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The government will not even begin to consider regulating advertisements falsely claiming that formula milk can make babies smarter and healthier until next year.
The ads would be allowed to run for some time yet, lawmakers, doctors, manufacturers and breastfeeding advocates were told at a Legislative Council meeting to launch separate legislation to control the actual contents of formula milk.
Yesterday's revelation led to concern that mothers would continue to be misled by false marketing and be discouraged from breastfeeding their babies.
Health services sector legislator Dr Joseph Lee Kok-long said: "One the biggest obstacles for breastfeeding is that the mothers are mislead by advertisements which tell them milk formula is better for their children. This practice should be regulated by the government."
Dr Kwok Ka-ki, from the Civic Party, agreed. "I am disappointed to see that the government did not ban these claims right away, and failed to provide a concrete timetable and plan on how they are going to curb the problem."
Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, acting secretary for food and health, promised only that the government would "propose to tackle the issue at a later stage in the coming year". "Regulation of claims is complex and controversial and there is still a lack of international consensus on the issue at present, but we are working on it," she said.
Chan said that, in the meantime, consultation on a voluntary advertising code for formula milk was under way.
Some 27 concerned parties, including formula-milk makers, doctors and breastfeeding advocates, were at the Legco meeting for the start of the two-month consultation on the quality and nutritional composition of milk for children under the age of three. Under the proposed law, 33 nutrients must be included.
But six major formula-milk brands disputed the ingredient standards set by the government, saying this did not follow normal international practice. They urged the government to extend the consultation period, which is due to end on January 21.