Something peculiar happened with the media reporting of the Supreme Court ruling on baby milk marketing regulations in the Philippines. The message I received from campaigners as the ruling came out on Tuesday was an excited: "We won almost everything!" But the Associated Press story that went out around the world, as reported in the International Herald Tribune for example, was that : "Philippine court lifts ban on infant formula ads in blow to breast-feeding advocates". This described a supposed lifting of a ban on advertising on formula advertising as: "a victory for multinational milk companies".
What the Supreme Court actually lifted was the Temporary Restraining Order on the Ministry of Health marketing regulations, meaning they come into force. Certainly, the Court didn't approve an outright ban on advertising of these products on the technical grounds that this exceeded the Department of Health's power in the primary legislation, known as the Milk Code. The ruling recognises the power of an Inter-Agency Committee to vet all advertising and other marketing materials before they become public and its right to block any advertisements or other marketing materials that are not scientific or factual or which idealize formula feeding.
So advertisements can be blocked as they are presented, but there cannot be a blanket ban.
A blanket ban would be clearer for all involved, but scrutiny, if carried out properly, will stop the type of propaganda the industry spews out in the Philippines at present, as shown in the UNICEF Philippines film, Formula for Disaster.
Why did sections of the media immediately declare a victory for the industry? Was it that they didn't read the 53-page ruling as I have done and made available on our website with my analysis? See:
Or was there something else going on? Were journalists, or those briefing them, wanting to convince people advertising is now legal and unregulated? It would serve the industry well if people believed they have no means to complain about advertising and campaigners became demoralised. Who was behind these headlines?
Sections of the media are now catching up with what is actually in the ruling.
The Daily Inquirer in the Philippines today has run a story: DoH: Formula milk ads will still pass through tight checks. That is based on statements from the Department of Health. There is also an article based on statements from UNICEF (included below): SC ruling on milk ads still a victory for breastfeeding.
Losing the outright ban on advertising was a blow, however. The Department of Health is reportedly appealing the judgement that its right to 'control' advertising does not give it the power to issue an outright ban. See the Manila Standards Today. As that article reports, there is also a move in Congress to amend the primary legislation to make it clear a ban is permitted.
The headlines are not what really matter of course. The real test will be whether the Inter-Agency Committee stops the aggressive marketing and forces companies to remove health claims and to add warnings to labels. Action is urgently needed. Remember 16,000 children die in the Philippines every year due to inappropriate feeding.
Here is UNICEF's statement on the ruling:
UNICEF Philippines applauds Supreme Court’s removal of the temporary restraining order on the national milk code
Manila, October 10, 2007 – After its initial reading, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Philippines is delighted with yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to lift the temporary restraining order on the Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations (RIRR) of the National Milk Code (EO51). UNICEF believes the ruling is a significant victory for infant, young child and maternal health in the Philippines.
With this ruling, infant formula manufacturers will be prevented from making false or exaggerated health claims about their products, and all advertising and marketing practices will be strictly regulated by a vastly strengthened Inter Agency Committee that monitors the Milk Code. The ruling also upholds the Department of Health’s authority to regulate advertising of all products covered by the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.
Notably, the Supreme Court upheld Section 16 of the RIRR which states that “All health and nutrition claims for products within the scope of this Code are absolutely prohibited.” This signals an end to the un-ethical advertising claims that infant formulas increase intelligence – a strategy that has been particularly successful in undermining efforts to promote breastfeeding.
In addition, promotional tactics such as donation of products, marketing in the guise of seminars for health workers, giving of gifts to health workers, use of health care facilities for promotions, etc., will be banned. All infant formula labeling will have to comply with stringent new guidelines intended to help parents to understand that powdered milk substitutes for breastmilk are not sterile and can contain “pathogenic micro-organisms.”
Now the crucial work of educating families and communities about the vastly superior benefits of breastfeeding can proceed without having to compete with billion peso marketing schemes based on false health claims about infant formula brands.
UNICEF wishes to acknowledge the unwavering efforts of a broad alliance of actors in the Philippines and abroad – including the Department of Health, the Philippines Congress, the World Health Organization, Arugaan, Children for Breastfeeding and other breastfeeding advocates – who have helped inform the public about this vital public health issue.