A milk shop on Ho Chi Minh City's Ky Dong Street. Lawmakers and experts want to extend a clause that bans the advertisement of breast milk substitutes for babies less than one year old.
Nguyen Thi Thuong began to buy a formula for her three-month-old daughter after the baby did not gain much weight and people she knew said she might not be producing enough breast milk.
"I chose a brand that appears frequently on TV ads," said the 21-year-old, who does marketing for a fitness center in Ho Chi Minh City.
"I was told that imported formulas improve brain development while local ones can easily help infants gain weight. I chose the former because I want my daughter to become intelligent," she added.
But with experts fearing that such commercials have led to an overwhelming amount of mothers who do not breastfeed enough to make their children healthy, legislators are debating imposing tighter restrictions on such advertisements.
Experts have warned against misconceptions propagated by baby-formula ads that would have consumers believe that substitutes are healthier than breast milk.
Nemat Hajeebhoy, Vietnam country director for Alive & Thrive, a Washington-based non-profit organization that seeks to improve health and nutrition and reduce stunting, said the incorrect assumption that mothers don't produce enough milk was the most cited cause of insufficient breastfeeding.
"Biologically speaking there is no research to support this," she said. "All mothers in the world can produce sufficient quantity and quality of breast milk, except in near-famine conditions"¦Unless the mother is really severely nutritionally deprived, there is no reason they shouldn't produce enough milk."
On May 1, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned of a major decline in breastfeeding rates across East Asia, with the rate of Vietnamese mothers exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months declining to around 15 percent from nearly 20 percent last year.
Evidence has clearly shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life not only improves their future growth and educational achievement, but also significantly reduces national health costs and helps prevent chronic malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
According to the General Nutrition Survey released last month, one in every three children in Vietnam is stunted.
Meanwhile, global revenue from baby food has increased significantly over the past several years.
Industry analysis company Euromonitor valued the global baby food market in 2008 at US$31 billion, projected to grow to
$42.7 billion by 2015, of which two thirds of the increase is expected to come from the Asia Pacific region.
Annelies Allain, director of the International Code Document Center, a Malaysia-based nonprofit that seeks to eliminate the irresponsible marketing of baby foods, said mothers who go back to work can choose to feed their babies any way they like provided that decision is made on the basis of objective information.
"However, the trouble with advertising is that the info is never objective. It is always skewed in one way or another to make the product attractive and make consumers feel they need it," she told Vietweek.
"If ads tell mothers that [some formula] provides for better brain development of babies, they may believe that their babies deserve that miracle food by bottle and that they should sacrifice that extra money to make their children smarter. The more costly, the smarter..."
Allain also said formula companies have been doing all kinds of things to influence lawmakers, deter legislation, and make it all seem above-board.
During the ongoing parliamentary session (May 21-June 21), lawmakers have called for stricter regulations against breast milk substitutes when discussing proposed amendments to the Advertisement Law, which is expected to be passed on June 21.
They want to either retain the current prohibition against advertising of breast milk substitutes for children under 12 months or extending the ban to under 24 months.
Earlier, the NA Standing Committee had removed a proposed article on retaining the 12-month threshold, saying it is already included in a 2006 Decree.
But lawmakers concerned that breastfeeding needs to be better protected said there should be such an article in the proposed amendments. Others said it should be extended to 24 months.
Nguyen Ngoc Phuong, NA representative of Quang Binh Province, said the removal of the article confused many lawmakers.
"I suggest banning the advertisement of breast milk substitutes, bottles and teats for babies under 24 months old," he said.
Khuc Thi Duyen, deputy from Thai Binh Province said a survey by lawmakers found that Vietnamese mothers produce enough breast milk but still buy formula, even when they don't have enough money for it, because they believe the advertisements that say it is good for their babies.
Hajeebhoy from Alive & Thrive said the products advertised by formula companies for children beyond six months are similar to products for babies under six months and thus mothers get confused.
"Advertising only one product in a line can effectively promote all of the rest by eliciting positive associations for a brand that consumers then apply to all of the products bearing that brand," she said.
Any restrictions on the marketing of formula based on a child's age will result in new product development and regulation needs to focus on preventing the marketing of brandings associated with infant formula, she said.
For Hajeebhoy, the problem is also educational.
"Women are not supported right when they get pregnant, they are not counseled on breastfeeding, on how much is provided, how much is needed"¦there is this feeling, though it can't be measured, that the child doesn't get enough," she said.
"Women need to be appropriately counseled and supported. As a mother you're always anxious particularly as a first time mother. Breastfeeding looks easy but it doesn't come easy, it is learned."
Most importantly, Hajeebhoy said, breast milk provides all the nutrition a child needs up to six months. It has all the right fat, protein and vitamin content and is what she called "species specific."
"Human milk for human babies," she said. "Look out into nature: cows don't drink dog milk and you don't see giraffes nursing elephants."
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