Focus more on protecting breastfeeding and infant health

There were many reports on the steep rise in formula prices as well as the aggressive marketing of the milk products (Competition watchdog looks into infant milk formula prices, May 6; and Call to end formula milk firms' aggressive tactics, May 11).

But Singapore should focus more on protecting breastfeeding and infant health rather than the formula price surge.

No one mentioned the minimum marketing standards enshrined in the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions (the International Code) which Singapore endorsed at annual World Health Organisation (WHO) meetings.

Adopted in 1981, the aim of the International Code is to stop the inappropriate marketing of formula milk by banning all forms of promotion. The Code's scope includes infant milk, follow-up milk, and growing-up milk.

The focus on surging prices ignores how the Code, once adopted into national measures and properly enforced, acts to protect breastfeeding and to ensure public access to unbiased infant and young child feeding information, including the risks of using formula milk.

Adherence to the Code is one of the core criteria in the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative.

The number of Code violations in Singapore reported to the International Code Documentation Centre of International Baby Food Action Network shows that violations are rampant.

WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and solid foods should be introduced to complement breastfeeding after six months to two years or more.

There are long-term benefits associated with breastfeeding, such as lower rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in adolescence and adulthood.

Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk, and there are risks involved in bottle-feeding.

Although it is a fiduciary duty of health professionals to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, and the moral obligation of the state to ensure adoption of the Code as a national measure, there has been no concrete action towards it.

This may well have something to do with the fact that Singapore is one of the very few countries to have an "industry code", that is, rules written by industry rather than by public health authorities.

Constance Ching

Programme Manager

International Code Documentation Centre of International Baby Food Action Network

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline 'Focus more on protecting breastfeeding and infant health'. Print Edition | Subscribe