International delegates to the United Nation's World Health Assembly looked on at the group's recent meeting, as U.S. representatives appeared to put the interests of the $70 billion baby food industry ahead of those of parents and children—and pressured other countries to do the same.
The New York Times reported Sunday that American officials, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, attempted to strongarm Ecuadorean delegates out of introducing a resolution to encourage and support breastfeeding and urge governments to restrict misleading marketing claims about baby formula.
So the administration is trying to end maternity coverage, birth control access, reproductive rights...,and now breastfeeding? What additional punishments for women are they thinking up? https://t.co/z0sBvHOgyX
— Cecile Richards (@CecileRichards) July 8, 2018
While not all women are able to or choose to breastfeed, decades of research have shown that breastfeeding carries health benefits for babies and mothers, as well as saving money for families.
Ecuador was set to introduce a resolution based on that research, but as more than a dozen international representatives confirmed to the Times, American delegates threatened the smaller nation with cuts to military aid and reduced trade deals if they went forward with the proposal. The U.S. also threatened the Assembly with cuts to funding for the World Health Organization.
"We were astonished, appalled, and also saddened," Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, told the Times. "What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health."
Though international officials did not see representatives of the baby formula industry prompt the U.S. delegation's actions, lobbyists for the industry were present at the meeting. Formula makers have turned their attention to marketing their products in developing countries in recent years, as breastfeeding has grown more popular in wealthy nations.
A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) told the Times that U.S. delegates objected to the resolution because it placed "unnecessary hurdles" in front of women who choose not to breastfeed, and "stigmatizes" formula-feeding—a claim physicians rejected on social media.
The idea that it’s impossible to highlight health benefits of breastfeeding without stigmatizing those who can’t or choose not to is wrong, deliberate, malicious. https://t.co/nhfK8jNnTS
— James Hamblin (@jameshamblin) July 8, 2018
After several other Latin American and African countries declined to introduce the measure, fearing retaliation, Russia successfully proposed the measure without facing threats from the U.S.
"We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries" — a Russian delegate to the UN. Oddly, the US let Russia propose the breastfeeding resolution it bullied Ecuador about. https://t.co/Y140ANxALV
— Hilary Davidson (@hilarydavidson) July 8, 2018
At the same World Health Assembly meeting, according to the Times, U.S. officials also removed suggestions of introducing a soda tax from a document advising countries on fighting high rates of obesity.
On social media, some pointed to the report as the latest evidence of the Trump administration's top priority—serving corporate interests, even at the expense of public health.
Need more reasons to get corporate money out of politics? Rather than standing w/ science and the recommendations of pediatricians around the world, our govt. sold out to corporate interests and fought a WHO resolution promoting breastfeeding. Yes, that's right - breastfeeding. https://t.co/kEJO2RZXEf
— Vanessa Adia (@VanessaAdiaTX12) July 8, 2018