Most readers of my blog will know that in the UK infant formula (first stage, or from birth formula) cannot be marketed to parents, or be discounted or promoted in shops. Manufacturers use follow-on formula to get around these advertising restrictions, but there are still rules that they must follow and they can be pulled up by the Advertising Standards Agency for breaking them. When shops break the rules on infant formula promotion – by discounting it, or positioning it in premium spots in store – they can be reported to Trading Standards. It’s far from a perfect system; no prosecutions have been brought, and companies are not fined nor have to apologise for infringing the rules, but the principle of challenging misleading marketing does at least exist. Baby Milk Action, with the help of its members and the public, monitors advertising to parents and compiles a report ‘Look What They’re Doing in the UK’ to expose the companies' tactics.
When it comes to advertising aimed at health professionals, however, the situation is very different. Many people don’t know that breastmilk substitutes can be marketed to healthcare professionals: in journals and magazines, on professional websites and at conferences and study days. Although the Department of Health has regulations stating that this advertising must be ‘scientific and factual’, there is no monitoring and no mechanism for reporting marketing that breaks the rules, other than to complain directly to the Department of Health.
First Steps Nutrition Trust’s recently published resource ‘Scientific and Factual – a review of breastmilk substitute advertising to health professionals’ looks more closely at the science used to back up the claims made in advertising in professional journals and magazines. We know from research that advertising is effective – why else would the companies spend vast sums on advertising space? – and that adverts that carry simple, easy-to-understand messages relating to the reader’s own scientific knowledge are very ‘believable’. The companies know this too, and they also know that few health workers will have the time or resources to investigate the references given in tiny print at the bottom of carefully crafted adverts. Graphs, charts and statistics create the appearance of ‘a scientific basis’, even when what they show is not scientifically correct or objective.
The resource looks in detail at adverts that appear in publications including the Journal of Family Health, the Journal of Health Visiting and Dietetics Today, but the same and similar adverts appear in many other publications aimed at health professionals in a wide range of fields. When the references given to support the claims made in the adverts are scrutinised, the findings are often shocking.
An advert for Cow & Gate Comfort milk, marketed as relieving colic, which shows an emotive image of an exhausted mother, appeared in the Journal of Health Visiting in March 2016. The main claim, in red type, is that ‘95% of paediatricians reported an improvement in common infant feeding problems with a formula like Cow & Gate Comfort1’ [italics added]. Closer reading of the reference given reveals that the study, funded by Numico (Danone) did not use Cow & Gate Comfort milk; the test formula had different energy, protein, carbohydrate and mineral content. NHS Choices says that there is no evidence for any treatment that is beneficial for colic, which resolves itself. The conclusion that the advert is deliberately misleading is inescapable.
SMA, now owned by Nestle, has been rolling out a new product, SMA PRO, and many stores have illegally cleared stock of the previous formula by marking it down in price to make way for the new product (lots of examples have been posted on the Baby Milk Action Facebook page). An extensive advertising campaign to health professionals has accompanied the roll-out. Dietetics Today carried two adverts for SMA PRO in March 2016, a shorter one-page ad and then a longer, more ‘scientific-looking’ ad – this in itself is a tactic designed to reassure the reader that the information given in the simpler advert is supported by the ‘science’ given in the more complex version. The main claim in the simpler advert is that SMA PRO is ‘Clinically proven1’. This is supported by one reference to a poster presentation given by Nestle employees at a conference – not a peer-reviewed publication as required by the Department of Health regulations. The poster reports a meta-analysis of four studies looking at infants fed with Nan milk (another Nestle product). It is not clear whether this Nan formula is the same as SMA PRO. It is impossible to know how the manufacturers can use this evidence to claim that SMA PRO is clinically proven, or what it is ‘clinically proven’ to do. That such shaky evidence can be used to support a headline claim on a new product shows just how confident the companies are that they will not be challenged.
There is much, much more detail in the resource, which has painstakingly reviewed all the scientific papers the companies have cited to support their claims. If, having read it, you’re outraged by how misleading these adverts are, there are plenty of suggestions for action on the First Steps Nutrition Trust website. Health professionals can demand change, by complaining to the journals and professional bodies that carry advertising and allow it at events, and writing to the Department of Health regulators. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health voted at its AGM in April to ‘decline any commercial transactions or any other kind of funding or support from all companies that market products within the scope of the WHO Code on the marketing of breast milk substitutes’ – other professional organisations can be lobbied to pass similar resolutions. For more information, and links to further reading, see the campaign pages on the First Steps Nutrition Trust website. Baby Milk Action is urging the UK parliament to enforce marketing restrictions on the promotion of formula to parents too – see more on their website here or make a donation to support their work.