HL Deb 01 May 1995 vol 563 cc1203-5

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to control the promotion of artificial milk products for bottle feeding babies in NHS hospitals and the health service generally.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the advertising and promotion of baby milks are restricted by the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations which came into force on 1st March 1995.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Does the Minister agree with all the healthcare authorities in this country that breast feeding is infinitely superior to bottle feeding both for mothers and for babies? Is she not alarmed that the rates of breast feeding in this country are falling? Is that not because the voluntary code embodied in the latest regulations failed to stop the promotional advantage of the manufacturers of bottle feeding products over our own health service? Is she aware that the manufacturers' association admitted in a letter to me a few days ago that it is spending £4 million to £5 million a year on promoting those infant formulae, whereas the Government are spending less than £130,000 a year?

Will the Government not listen to such authorities as the World Health Organisation, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and 40 other healthcare professional bodies and ban the advertising and promotion of those products in the health service and healthcare centres?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we agree with the noble Baroness that breast is best; and we try to encourage women to feed their babies from the breast. However, the new regulations that have been introduced in fact put into legislation an agreement that has been running for over 10 years. Indeed, the instance of women breast feeding has not fallen. It has been about the same over the past decade at 63 per cent. If one considers how the lifestyle of many women has changed, I believe that that is good progress.

Nevertheless, the Government will invest more heavily in the campaign. From 22nd May to 26th May we have a sponsored national breast feeding awareness week; we have set up the national breast feeding working group; we shall be investing £50,000 in a training programme; and we support the three voluntary groups in this area which do so much to promote this very good cause.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of the Royal Free Hospital Hampstead NHS Trust. Is the noble Baroness aware that we have appointed a second breast feeding adviser? Many women require encouragement, in particular at the beginning if breast feeding is difficult. Will she confirm that that kind of practice is desirable in hospitals?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am aware that my noble friend runs an extremely good NHS trust. I would expect her to take up this cause, as she has. I believe that she is absolutely right. What women need is consistency of advice. To have two workers advising women in this field is an excellent idea.

Lord Rea

My Lords, in December 1993 the Government issued draft regulations on infant formula milk advertising which followed the guidance of the WHO and the European directive and restricted advertising solely to professionals concerned with infant feeding. Why did the Government later change their mind? The present regulations allow advertising to mothers through the healthcare system, thus giving the advertisements a spurious professional authenticity.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the situation has not changed. We supported the adoption of the code by the World Health Assembly in 1981. That recommended a basis for action in member states. It was left to individual countries to decide how to give effect to those aims and principles in their own territories. We have never given a commitment to transpose every jot and tittle of the WHO code into UK law. We believe that the regulations strike the right balance. They reflect our commitment to promote breast feeding and to deregulation where appropriate. Nothing has changed. All we have done is to ensure that the voluntary code, which has been operational for 11 years, is now enshrined in legislation in line with the WHO principles.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it may be better to allow women to choose for themselves how their infants should be fed? Perhaps women know best.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we very much support the view that it is up to women to make their own decisions. However, we also want to promote breast feeding where that is appropriate.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

No one is suggesting that women should be prevented or prohibited from using bottle feeding formulae if they so choose. We object to women being submitted to promotional pressure by those with vested interests in bottle feeding at the most vulnerable times for women—in the maternity wards, the health clinics and the healthcare centres. Is such pressure not a disgrace? Is the Minister aware that five European countries have introduced the ban advocated by the World Health Organisation with very beneficial results? The result in Norway, for instance, was that breast feeding rates rose to 99 per cent. on a free choice basis.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I do not think that women are silly. I believe that they know what is best for themselves, their babies and, indeed, their families. The new regulations ban all forms of general advertising and promotion of infant formulae to the public at large. Advertisements are permitted only in publications specialising in baby care and distributed through the healthcare system or in scientific and trade journals. Those advertisements are not seen by the general public. The content and presentation of all the advertisements are tightly controlled by the regulations.

I do not believe that there is a huge issue here. We are simply doing what has been done for 11 years. However, we are putting more effort and investment into promoting breast feeding because we recognise that it is better for mothers and their babies. But in the end it is up to women to make the choice.