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ASA ruling on SMA formula advertisement reveals how UK regulations are failing mothers and babies

Press release 19 December 2007

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has today published its ruling rejecting complaints about a Wyeth SMA advertisement in which a father declares love and support for his partner, including helping with night feeds. The advertisement promotes the SMA logo used generally for infant and follow-on formula and encourages people to contact the company for information.

The ASA dismissed the suggestion that the advertisement undermines breastfeeding on the grounds that the specific product pictured fleetingly in the advertisement was SMA Progress follow-on formula. The ASA also stated that SMA had told it the babies in the advertisement were over 6 months old. Campaigners argue these points are irrelevant as follow-on milks are breastmilk substitutes - breastfeeding is recommended beyond 6 months - and promoting them will inevitably undermine breastfeeding. Follow-on milks, which were invented in an industry attempt to get round the advertising restrictions, have been described by the World Health Assembly as ‘not necessary’ and are subject to the same restrictions on promotion as other formulas (WHA Resolution 39.28).

The ASA, an industry self-regulatory body, refuses to recognise the validity of the World Health Assembly measures (the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions) despite the fact that baby food companies are required to abide by them independently of legislation (Article 11.3). The ASA code requires advertisements to be ‘decent, honest and truthful’ as well as ‘legal’, which campaigners suggest means they should comply with the Code and Resolutions, but the ASA only applies its own interpretation of the narrow UK law.

In the past the ASA has told Baby Milk Action that it will only consider breaches of the International Code and Resolutions if these are implemented in UK legislation. A broad range of organisations have called for the government to do this in its current revision of legislation, but their recommendations, included a ban on follow-on formula advertising in favour of independent information, have been largely ignored. Those calling for stronger measures include the government’s own Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, LACORS (the umbrella body for Trading Standards officers responsible for enforcing legislation), the Royal Colleges and health advocates that make up the Baby Feeding Law Group.

The Breastfeeding Manifesto Coaltion, a broader grouping still, and an Early Day Motion introduced into Parliament by Lynne Jones MP on Monday are also backing calls for full implementation of the Code and Resolutions in the UK.

Mike Brady, coordinator of the Baby Feeding Law Group's monitoring project, said:

“If the ASA really believes that parents should be basing their decisions on how to feed a child during the most important phase of its development outside the womb on the heart-tugging, greeting-card sentiments of Wyeth's SMA advertisement then they have seriously failed in their responsibility to protect the public. We will consider taking the case to the ASA ombudsman or to judicial review. This is not an argument over soap powder or chocolate bars, it is about life-long issues of health. The ASA has already demonstrated the regulatory system for breastmilk substitutes in the UK is not fit for purpose and proposed changes to the law expected this week are unlikely to make much difference as the government has so far ignored the recommendations of its own advisors, health worker bodies and other health experts and is following the industry line.”

The Baby Feeding Law Group submitted a report Protecting breastfeeding – Protecting babies fed on formula to the recent government consultation on the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations. From the responses published by the Food Standard Agency it appears that unanimous call from health advocates for stronger measures has been ignored and the Minister for Public Health, Dawn Primarolo MP, has signed the regulations to go to Parliament this week . She has, however promised to revisit this issue in 1 year’s time to see if the new law has been effective.

Patti Rundall, OBE, Policy Director of the Baby Milk Action, the Secretariat of the Baby Feeding law Group, said: “We have asked the scrutiny committee’s of the House of Commons and the House of Lords to examine the new regulations and reject them as unfit for purpose and will be stepping up the campaign to strengthen the law.”

The ASA cleared the advertisement’s slogan "For infant nutrition trust the experts" despite the fact that Wyeth has a criminal conviction for ‘a cynical and deliberate breach’ of the formula marketing regulations. Information on the SMA website and telephone ‘careline’ has been found by Baby Milk Action to contradict guidance from the Food Standards Agency and the Chief Medical Officer (see the Campaigns Coordinator's blog). Earlier in December, the Royal Colleges wrote to the Minister for Public Health reiterating the importance that the independent and objective information provided by their members on breastfeeding and on use of formula is undermined by company promotion.

Many other countries have implemented the Code and Resolutions. Earlier this year the Department of Health in the Philippines fought a legal battle with the formula industry up at the Supreme Court in a successful defence of its regulations. Several other European Union Member States, which are also implementing a revised Directive on formula marketing, are planning to introduce outright bans on the advertising of follow-on formula. Other requirements being called for in the UK, and being implemented elsewhere, are for clearer warnings on labels that powdered formula is not sterile and better instructions on how to reduce the risks of possible contamination with harmful bacteria.

The ASA ruling is available at:

For a link to view the advertisement see the Campaigns Coordinator's blog

The EDM from Lynne Jones MP is available at:


"That this House notes the Government's responsibility to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly (WHA) through national measures to protect breastfeeding and to ensure the safe use of breastmilk substitutes if these are necessary; regrets its failure to act on the advice of its own Scientific Committee on Nutrition, LACORS, the health professional bodies, and health advocates making up the Baby Feeding Law Group, through the proposed Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations, by failing to prohibit promotion of follow-on formula, health and nutrition claims and companies targeting parents or to require improved warnings and instructions to reduce risk of formula use; and urges the Government to bring the regulations into line with the International Code and WHA resolutions which call for such prohibition."

For further information contact:

Mike Brady: 020 3239 9222 or
Patti Rundall: 07786 523493

Notes for editors

  1. The UK has breastfeeding rates amongst the lowest in the industrialised world. Despite government commitments to improve breastfeeding rates there has been little change, with initiation rates of just 76%, meaning a quarter of infants receive no breastmilk at all. Breastfeeding rates then decline rapidly as the promotion exposed in Baby Milk Action’s recently launched Hard Sell Formula pamphlet undermines breastfeeding and encourages mothers to use formula. In the UK few infants are breastfed at 6 months. Government figures show just 48% are breastfed at 6 WEEKS. According to government figures, 90% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding at 6 weeks said they wanted to breastfeed for longer, as did 40% of mothers who breastfed for 6 months.

  2. The UK Baby Feeding Law Group is an adhoc group of health professional and lay organizations working to bring UK and EU legislation into line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant WHA resolutions. Its members are: The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, the Association of Radical Midwives, Baby Milk Action, the Breastfeeding Network, the Food Commission, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors’ Association, Lactation Consultants of Great Britain, La Leche League (GB), Little Angels, Midwives Information and Resource Service, the National Childbirth Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative.

  3. In its Public Health White Paper, Choosing Health, the Government stated: “Further action will include the review of the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations (1995) with a view to further restrict the advertising of infant formula. We will continue to press for amendments to the EU Directive on infant formula and follow-on formula.” While the Government did push for changes to the EU Directive, its efforts largely failed. However, legal experts agree that the Directive does not prevent the Government taking action to protect health by introducing World Health Assembly marketing requirements in UK law. The Baby Feeding Law Group submitted the report which submitted the report Protecting breastfeeding - Protecting babies fed on formula to the consultation.

  4. Baby Feeding Law Group members are also members of the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition, which is calling for action in 7 areas to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.


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