First published at Mochamanual.com.
True story. A high-level hospital administrator gets ready to start a meeting with the nursing staff of the neo-natal unit—the men and women who care for the hospital’s most precious arrivals. As the meeting sets to commence, several staffers say, we can’t start the meeting without “Phil” (*names changed to protect the guilty and shameless). As everyone agrees Phil should be at the meeting the administrator can’t recall a staffer named Phil. She thought she was having a senior moment. Turns out, Phil is the infant formula rep. Not a hospital staffer.
But Phil had so cleverly insinuated himself into the culture of the neo-natal care unit that he was viewed as part of the team, someone’s whose input should be considered in administrative decisions.
Pause for WTH moment.
Sadly, the more I talk and travel and interview and ask and discover and observe, the more common these stories are.
Truth is, the pharmaceutical companies want your baby hooked on their infant formula whether you want to or not. And hospitals, who, given the state of America’s health should be focused on providing superior healthcare are instead serving as a marketing vehicle for the drug companies.
That is why they spend millions marketing to hospitals, infiltrating NICUs and maternity wards, striking closed door deals with hospitals, and making sure you have a very cute bag full of infant formula samples and infant formula coupons when you leave the hospital.
Even mothers who express their desire to exclusively breastfeed are given the bag. Just in case. And suddenly your breastfeeding experience has been undermined and questioned before you exit the hospital.
And because it has come from the hospital, the very same people who helped deliver your most precious production, it has an unofficial stamp of medical approval.
It’s no wonder (and long overdue) that public pressure is mounting for pharmaceutical companies to stop their practice of marketing infant formula through hospitals. Last week, Public Citizen, a Washington, DC-based non-profit consumer advocacy group launched a nationwide campaign urging hospitals to stop including industry-provided samples of infant formula in new mothers’ discharge bags because the distribution is unethical and violates good public health policy, the group said. Public Citizen launched the initiative with letters, co-signed by more than 100 other organizations, sent to more than 2,600 hospitals across the country.
Public Citizen says that at least two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. distribute samples of infant formula, even if mothers have indicated that they plan to breastfeed. Succumbing to infant formula companies’ marketing techniques is costly, both in terms of money spent on formula and the health of mothers and children. Formula feeding costs between $800 and $2,800 per year. Additionally, the formula samples usually are brand-name products, which cost up to 66 percent more than store brands. Families typically continue to use the same expensive brand they receive in samples.
“Hospitals and doctors’ offices shouldn’t be used as marketing vehicles for any product, period,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said. “They certainly shouldn’t be pushing products that harm the health and well-being of babies and new moms.”
Added Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project, “When hospitals distribute formula samples, they are engaging in marketing for major pharmaceutical and food companies. Many hospitals are actively trying to promote breastfeeding in their obstetrics units. But by continuing to allow marketing of infant formula in their facilities, they are undermining their own efforts.”
Formula makers are quick to say they are helping mothers. But, when you look at the big picture of pharmaceutical giants in cahoots with large hospitals, it’s time to start asking ourselves, whose interests are they really serving?
To read Public Citizen’s letter, view a complete list of hospitals that have received the letter and learn more about the organization’s campaign to stop infant formula marketing in healthcare facilities, visit http://citizen.org/infant-formula. The petition is available at http://action.citizen.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=10062.