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Despite ban, marketing of hazardous breast-milk substitutes continues

MUMBAI: Your infant may have unknowingly been exposed to potential health risks due to commercial compulsions. Almost three decades after strict laws were instituted to control the marketing and promotion of baby foods in India, aggressive promotions to doctors by companies, including Nestle, Abbott and Danone, through conferences, conventions, digital platforms and freebies, continue unabated, thereby creating a health hazard for millions of babies.

Though several regulations and an International Code to curb “unscrupulous” promotions and marketing of infant food exists in India, ironically nearly half the infants under six months are not exclusively breastfed.

This indicates that aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates, and to an unhealthy nexus that exists between companies and healthcare professionals.

The International Code adopted by World Health Assembly in May 1981, followed by Indian laws — Infant Milk Substitutes (IMS) Feeding Bottles, and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act 1992 — ban any kind of promotion and sponsorship by health workers of baby food, infant milk substitutes and feeding bottles.

However, data shared with TOI shows that over the years companies have been aggressively promoting and marketing baby food through conferences and conventions, exotic trips and even offering discounts on e-commerce sites like Amazon, discountkart and infibeam.

RTI details show that Nestle, Danone, Abbott among others, sponsored the National Conference of Indian Society of Clinical Nutrition held in Delhi-based Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences in October 2016.

Other examples of fraudulent practices include neonatal workshop in 2016 at Cloudnine Hospital being sponsored by Nestle, Abbott and Mead Johnson Nutrition, while Mead Johnson offered to sponsor an International Neonatology Conference in Madrid in December 2017. In fact, there are several examples of nutritional conferences being sponsored by food companies, including Nestle, health activists say.

Concerns are being raised by activists on Danone using Docplexus, a digital platform of doctors, to promote its brand and advertise products, which is also banned under the IMS Act. Popular baby food brands sold here include Lactogen, Cerelac, Nestum (Nestle), Farex and Dexolac (Danone), and Similac (Abbott Nutrition).

Promotion of any kind to 0-2 years of children of baby foods and feeding bottles, including advertisements, inducements on sales, pecuniary benefits to doctors, including sponsorship, is banned under the IMS Act. The Act was enacted by the Parliament in 1992 to control marketing of baby foods that was recognised to be a health hazard causing high morbidity and mortality among infants and young children, and later strengthened in 2003 to cover babies up to 2 years of age.

The Act says “no person shall advertise for the distribution, sale or supply of infant milk substitutes, feeding bottles or infant foods; or give an impression that feeding of infant milk substitutes and infant foods are equivalent to, or better than, mother’s milk; or take part in the promotion of infant milk substitutes, feeding bottles or infant foods”.

“There is strong evidence that baby food companies aggressively promote the use of their products directly or indirectly disregarding the International Code or national legislations. Governments need to act decisively to enforce regulations to put an end to all kinds of promotions,” said Dr Arun Gupta, Regional Coordinator of International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), Asia.

Medical research from Nepal, Ghana, and India suggest that early initiation of breastfeeding reduces neonatal mortality by 44% among infants surviving at least 48 hours, and is especially beneficial for preventing sepsis- related deaths.

Baby food companies including Danone and Abbott say they strictly adhere to Indian regulations, and are committed to ethical marketing. In response to specific “charges”, a Danone spokesperson said Docplexus is an online platform for doctors only, no consumer has access to this information and hence there is no violation of the IMS Act.

source: Times Of India

Rupali Mukherjee
A business journalist with around two decades of experience tracking key consumer-focussed sectors like consumer durables, retail, consumer goods, aviation, automobiles and advertising, as well as economic ministries of the Union government. Now, writes primarily on pharmaceuticals and healthcare, and on issues of consumer interest. Besides also looks at trends that are shaping consumer behaviour and the broad consumer landscape.