Infant formula companies mislead new parents
  • | | June 18, 2013 11:20 AM
Baby formula manufacturers have engaged in promotion campaigns which include not only advertising, but also paying doctors to convince parents to use their products, contributing to a decline in the rate of breastfeeding in Vietnam.

Representatives of UNICEF and other international organisations participating at a recent conference on new policies for child rearing held by the Vietnam National Assembly's Institute of Legislative Studies revealed in the period between 1995 and 2011 the rate of breastfeeding in Southeast Asia increased only slightly, from 28% to 29% compared to an increase in the rest of the world from 34% to 43%.

A survey released in January by the Institute for Family and Gender Studies also showed that only 20% of Vietnamese children are breastfed until they are two years old.

Many of the NGOs have blamed this situation on the aggressive promotion campaigns of infant-formula companies.

Very first care

According to Bui Van Chuong, a doctor at a private obstetric clinic on Giai Phong Street, they are often contacted by formula companies seeking information on expectant mothers who go to the clinic in order to call to advertise their products.

"Many times they even visit the clinic to help welcome and register expectant mothers, copying their contact information," the doctor said. 

Duyen, a pregnant mother living in Hanoi attests to having regularly seen representatives from Mead Johnson at both obstetric clinics and at her first child's kindergarten.

"They hand out leaflets advertising new products for mothers and babies. Sometimes they even give out free samples," she said.

Thuy, the mother of a 2-year-old child, also says that she often receives phone calls from Abbott. "They call me whenever they are preparing to hold a seminar for their new products and try to invite me to bring my son," Thuy said. "At first I was surprised that they knew my son's name and birthday. They also asked about his height and weight and had other questions about what type of milk I was feeding him. These questions are always followed by a sales pitch about how their products will help my son to grow. Now, after talking to my friends, I know that they are all getting similar phone calls."

She said that the calls have become an annoyance.

Doctors as advertising tools

Besides the traditional means of advertising, such as TV spots, newspaper ads or street banners, formula companies have now turned toward coordinating with doctors and nutrition experts to help sell their products.

They invite doctors to seminars ostensibly addressing the dietary needs of young children, however the message is often to tout the benefits of their own formulas. One such seminar, held in early March by Mead Johnson Vietnam in coordination with the Vietnam Pediatric Association, saw the attendance of over 600 doctors and health experts. Speakers were invited to talk about the benefits of the substances DHA and ARA to infant development.

Many doctors attending a recent event organised by a baby formula company
During the seminar Meade Johnson introduced their products which contained these substances.

According to Phan Ngoc Huyen from a PR company in Hanoi, obstetricians and nutritionists along with dentists and skin experts are among the most sought-after experts for such PR events.

"Since consumers have become desensitised to television advertisements, PR companies are seeking new ways to sell their products, and using doctors as spokespeople has become an effective method, as people tend to turn to doctors for nutritional advice. Companies are even willing to pay doctors to promote their products," Huyen shared.

She said that doctors are often paid between VND 3-5 million (USD150-250) to attend such conferences, and prestigious experts are often paid double. "The larger companies sometimes pay as much as USD 1,000-2,000, so it's not difficult to attract doctors to these events," Huyen added.

False claims

Dr. Alessandro Lellamo from the WHO said at the conference on child-rearing that breastfed babies have average IQs of 3 to 5 points higher than those given formula. However this has not stopped formula companies from creating advertisements which say their products is better for brain development along with dubious claims.

According to an official from the Ministry of Health, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, many ads imply that formulas are either a perfect substitute or better than breast milk.

She added that some banned products were still on sale at many chemists or sold by medical staff who earn commission on their sales. Inspections of such cases were slow and few.

In 2011, G&P Mama Colostrum was fined by the Hanoi's Department of Health for claiming that their product, New Mama Colostrum, had the same nutritional benefits as breast milk. The company also had to pay another fine for making false claims about their prebiotic/probiotic supplements.

Nguyen Duc Vinh from the Ministry of Health's Maternal and Child Health Department admits that lax management over infant formula advertisements has led many mothers to wrong conclusions about child development and nutrition.

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