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Fighting Resolution to Restrict Baby Formula Sales and Promote Breastfeeding, Trump Officials Threatened Funding Cuts

"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."

As baby formula sales have gone down in welathy countries in recent years, the baby food industry has targeted developing countries with marketing campaigns. A UN resolution passed this spring—despite pushback from the U.S.—aimed to promote breastfeeding around the world. (Photo: USAID/Flickr/cc)

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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