Hong Kong fails to promote breast milk even amid formula shortage

Formula makers exploiting shortage to directly market to mothers, breastfeeding advocate says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 5:03am

The government has been accused of squandering an opportunity to promote breastfeeding amid the furore over shortages of infant formula.

One breastfeeding advocacy group said a special hotline and other measures aimed at helping local mothers secure formula milk actually assisted manufacturers in promoting their products and gave them direct access to mothers.

The measures also had the effect of making infant formula appear essential, said Maggie Holmes, of the Hong Kong branch of La Leche League.

The group also criticised a scheme set up by seven major formula makers and the General Chamber of Pharmacy that invited parents to register with the manufacturers in order to obtain coupons which guaranteed supplies.

"It is an official endorsement of these 'mothers' clubs', which provide a direct channel for the formula companies to inundate new mothers with their advertising," Holmes said. "Meanwhile, the formula companies look like heroes for stepping in and solving a problem. They must be so delighted."

La Leche League's Caroline Carson said the shortage has been a lost opportunity to promote breastfeeding and had provided manufacturers with new means to sell their products.

She noted that the coupon scheme would not be permitted under a draft code drawn up by the government on the marketing of formula milk. But, while approval is pending for the code, manufacturers had already been gaining access to mothers through their registration.

"[They are] looking for ways to circumvent the code by effectively getting permission from mothers to market to them directly."

Dr Patricia Ip Lai-sheung, chairwoman of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association, said in some ways the shortage had been an opportunity to promote breastfeeding.

"At the beginning of the shortage, the government together with five other healthcare professional bodies issued a statement reminding mothers that breast is best and that cheaper cows' milk could be used after 12 months. It was a strong statement and a very positive thing to do," Ip said.

"There have also been news reports about a couple of companies manipulating the supply of formula and controlling prices. That has not been good publicity for the manufacturers.

"However, the government was very quick to set up a 24-hour hotline helping mothers having difficulty buying formula. Unfortunately, I don't see that kind of support or a hotline to help breastfeeding mothers."

The Hong Kong Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association, which represents six major formula milk brands, did not comment on the allegations.

The Department of Health said it had stepped up its promotion and support for child feeding, including breastfeeding.