New consumer protection rules for marketing and advertising tend to run the gauntlet of free-market principles. In the latest example major manufacturers of baby milk formula have cited economic freedom in their resistance to some aspects of a voluntary advertising code. These include prominent health warnings, such as the need to use very hot water to mix the formula, and the possibility of digestive upsets. Manufacturers are concerned about the effects of hot water on live organisms they claim are beneficial, and say the second warning doesn't apply to all formula milk.
Moves to adopt a code gathered momentum after several Japanese brands were found to lack essential nutrients. It is important that substitutes for breast milk carry information about their proper use or adverse reactions. We trust that the current consultation on a voluntary code - which may eventually form the basis of legislation - will reconcile free-market principles with the consumers' interests. The hard part will be banning questionable claims for the benefits of formula as opposed, explicitly or implicitly, to breast milk.
A lot of advertising violates the code on marketing of breast-milk substitutes drawn up by the World Health Organisation. While the WHO recommends breastfeeding exclusively until the age of six months, only an estimated 15 per cent of Hong Kong babies aged four to six months remain on this regime. Save for the individual mother's right to choose, or inability to breastfeed, that is regrettable, given the weight of research that shows that no formula has yet been produced that can match breast milk for nourishment and preventing future illness.
The government needs to strike a sensible balance with the interests of mothers and babies foremost. At the same time it should encourage breastfeeding through promotion of workplace, community and family support, including education, improved maternity leave for working mothers and provision of community and workplace areas where mothers can nurse discreetly.