Advertising formula milk through sponsorship and professional journals: why the debate?


From the time I can remember, my lovely mum taught my sisters and I to try to always tell the truth and to consider speaking up in unjust situations. Mum held on to her beliefs right up until she died, and frequently shared her views on situations that she considered inappropriate.  I think I’ve upheld mum’s principles, and on reflection I believe it’s always helped me to stand firm when pushing boundaries to facilitate women’s choices during their childbirth experience, and has assisted me when I have succeeded in implementing or supporting change.  It is with this in mind that I write this blog, about formula milk companies and their drive to make money through exploiting relationships with healthcare professionals, and parents.

Breast v Bottle

Before go on I want to be clear I am fully committed to the promotion and support of breastfeeding.  I successfully breastfed my four children, and have witnessed the health and social benefits of breastfeeding through my extensive work as a midwife of 35 years. I could go on. But I am a true advocate of choice, and believe that if a mother has considered relevant evidenced based information in relation to feeding her baby and she chooses to use artificial milk, then her decision should be respected and supported.  My words here do not intend to debate breast v bottle feeding, but to present my position and moral stance on whether multi-million pound formula milk companies should advertise their products through health professionals.

Once more the British Journal of Midwifery (BJM) has responded to criticism about their continuing allegiance to formula milk companies (Lewis 2012), and attempted to justify their actions. The article fails to convince me that the intent to continue to engage with formula milk companies is anything other than financial.  In 2004 I wrote to the BJM [link on the page] (Byrom 2004) following the editor’s reply to a reader’s letter about her dismay that the journal advertised formula milk. Although my letter was printed, it brought about no change.

Quite recently it was brought to my attention that the BJM was also advertising study days sponsored by Cow and Gate, and research grants.  In response to this activity various blogs and social media campaigns are raising awareness of the ethical implications, and the push for change is speedily gaining momentum.

Targeted marketing= increased sales

I am totally flabbergasted and bemused as to why organisations whose aim is to educate health professions continue to accept unethical sponsorship and advertise products that potentially undermine health benefits (Renfrew et al 2005).

But the debate surrounding the marketing of formula milk in professional journals and sponsorship is long-standing and controversial (Sachs 2005).  Yet for me it is simple, and doesn’t need academic reasoning or debate as to whether or not the practice breaks any legal code.  Formula milk companies would NOT sponsor studies or financially support professional journals if it wasn’t lucrative for them. They KNOW that the influence on professionals is subtle, but it increases sales.

A well used ‘excuse’ from professional journals who accept financial support through advertising formula milk on their pages is that the adverts serve to provide information on milk products to its readers so that they can in turn provide advice to parents. But this is neither necessary nor advisable on many counts.  How can we provide advice from information from an advert? There are resources available that provide the detail needed to help mothers choose which artificial milk to use, so adverts which introduce bias and confusion are not needed.

So come on BJM, the opinion of your midwifery readership doesn't change. It would be so good if you would follow the example of your sister journal the African Journal of Midwifery, and decline to engage with formula milk company financial aid. A moral conscience is so important.

And midwives, if you are happy to accept sponsorship from formula milk companies, consider the impact. The only benefit is the increased wealth of the milk manufacturer, and the detriment is to mothers and babies.

Be the change you want to see in the world....


Byrom S (2004) Correspondence British Journal of Midwifery Vol 10 12 P608

Lewis P (2012) Breast is best but choice is paramount British Journal of Midwifery Vol 20:6 386-387

Renfrew, M. et al (2005) The effectiveness of public health interventions to promote the duration of breastfeeding: systematic review, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, London

Sachs M (2005) Debate: Milk advertising should not be allowed in journals. British Journal of Midwifery Vol 13:11 714-715.