Thursday, September 15, 2011

Little Gym of Kuwait Bebelac Promotion: What's all the fuss?

Little Gym of Kuwait Bebelac Promotion Violates the WHO Code
There is an online debate going on right now on the local Little Gym of Kuwait's facebook page about a current promotion- free gift bags from formula company Bebelac. Little Gym posts: "Thanks Bebelac, the parents really enjoy the formula, sippy cup,baby spoon and all of the great gifts, they especially love the bag itself and every day we see kids using these bags to put there snacks and other things in, thanks again for the great product!!!!!!!!"

Several mamas reprimanded the Little Gym for promoting a formula company- citing that they have a conflict of interest and should not be promoting formula for ethical reasons. One mama commented on Bebelac's own advert description: "No infant formula is "very close" to breastmilk and it is unethical to advertise that it is. Moreover, the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes prohibits statements that suggest that formula protects or "helps protect" baby's immune system, as such statements are simply unfounded. Nothing against moms opting for formula - my own daughter had it when I went back to work. I do, however, take issue with the handing out formula bags to parents at a children's gym and telling them that the powder in the bag is similar to breastmilk (it is not)."

In response, Little Gym stated: "We believe that it is a mothers choice and I'm sorry you feel so strong about denying freedom of choice, again, we respect your opinion, we by no means intend to "sabotage a mothers intentions to breast feed", what a mother chooses to do is a personal decision, as far as your studies, we respect that as well, again ,it's a mothers choice what she does in regards to feeding just as it is a parents choice to politely decline taking the gift bag, we again are not advocating formula over breast milk,we 100% agree that for mothers whom are able, there is no substitute for breast feeding, but there are those who need formula... the free gift bag contains other nice things, hopefully these were not a concern to you, if you or any mother would like to return your free bag, I will be happy to send it back to the company who graciously donated them."

So- is this a big deal? Or are all these mamas getting their panties in a bunch for nothing?

The fact is, this is a big deal. All advertising or promotion of infant formula to the general public, or directly and indirectly to mothers, is forbidden by the International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (Article 5.1 and Article 5.2)  Bebelac is violating the code, and by distributing the bags to mothers, the Little Gym of Kuwait is as well.

WHO Code Protects Moms
The Little Gym is fooling itself if they think that Bebelac donated these bags out of generosity. There is no such thing as a "free lunch". Bebelac's gift bags are not a "generous gift", but a sensible marketing investment for its formula products. Bebelac knows that mothers who try formula samples, or even use items with formula names written on thems (cups, bags, etc.) are more likely to formula feed their babies rather than breastfeeding exclusively. If this was not the case, formula companies would not continue the "gift bag" marketing strategy! They target places like kids gyms, nurseries, toy shops, kids clothing stores...anywhere mothers or children congregate. And since the WHO International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes is not enforceable- it is up to consumer advocacy groups to influence local marketing legislation and the integrity of companies like The Little Gym of Kuwait to refuse such "generous gifts" as a conflict of interest.

Breastfeeding in Kuwait is already in mortal peril. In Kuwait, only 11% of babies are exclusively breastfed (according to a 2010 study conducted by Kuwait University). The health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother and baby (i.e. prevention of diabetes, heart disease, obesity) should make the Little Gym of Kuwait the biggest promoter of breastfeeding, rather than fighting against it by inadvertently providing free advertising for formula companies. Both the mothers who carry the bags around and the gym handing the bags out are being used as free advertising for Bebelac.

It is true that a mother's choice to breastfeed or formula feed is a private matter. That is why the WHO Code was created to protect mothers from such dishonest advertising, so that they can learn about breastfeeding from unbiased sources. Conscientious health promotion organizations have an obligation to uphold the WHO Code by refusing to give formula companies a "free ride". Many other ethically minded individuals and organizations have refused to accept money and "free" gifts from formula companies like Bebelac, Nestle, and others- and I would encourage the Little Gym of Kuwait to do the same.

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