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Feature Breastmilk Substitutes

Formula milk: why WHO has taken a hard stance on sponsorship

BMJ 2022; 379 doi: (Published 14 October 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;379:o2470

Linked News

Formula milk: WHO Foundation refuses to take further financial donations from Nestlé

  1. Rebecca Coombes, head of journalism
  1. The BMJ
  1. rcoombes{at}

As the World Health Organization takes a firm stance after a year of controversy, The BMJ reveals what prompted the change—and why it’s so difficult to remove corporate money from health associations

In 2019 BMJ took the decision to end all marketing of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) in its journals. The move was based on extensive evidence of the harms to health caused by aggressive promotion of BMS products, as well as a desire to support the World Health Organization’s code of practice governing the marketing of these substitutes.1

But the code is about more than advertising in journals. It also recognises that health professionals and their associations are targets of marketing and are used as conduits by the BMS industry. The code’s aim to end financial relations between industry and the health profession has become more and more explicit in World Health Assembly resolutions over the years (see timeline). But sponsorship is still very common among colleges and associations—so much so that WHO and Unicef are developing new guidance for associations specifically focused on conferences,2 the most common form of BMS sponsorship.

The issues were explored in a webinar series last month organised by WHO, The BMJ, and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, which is available to watch on The BMJ’s YouTube channel (video 1).

Video 1

The Problem with the Formula Milk Industry (8 Sep 2022): An unhealthy influence on health professionals?

For Grainne Moloney, senior adviser at Unicef, industry influence comes in many forms, including “high visibility presence at conferences with free gifts, sponsored dinners, and also through training, sponsored meetings, and nutrition institutes and through to research and sponsored journal articles.” A review of related websites found that over 50% of national paediatric associations reported receiving funds from commercial milk formula …

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