Breastfeeding rates have declined significantly in Asia as a result of intensifying competition in the infant formula sector, according to a report from the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).
The proportion of exclusively breastfeeding mothers in East Asia fell from 45% in 2006 to 29% in 2012, according to UNICEF data cited in the IBFAN report, Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2014.
Much of the blame for this decline can, according to the report, be attributed "squarely" to marketing and the payment of incentives to health workers to promote the use of infant formula products.
The increasingly competitive nature of the sector is the key driver of these practices, said the report.
“The market is so profitable that further acquisitions have led to more concentration, leaving two global leaders in fierce competition: Nestlé and Danone. Smaller companies are just as aggressive and the lucrative China market attracts new export investments (e.g. Canada, Ireland),” it said.
“Rather than abide by international recommendations, companies use new public methods to avoid national regulations. They are pushing new products and have even admitted using bribery to get a foot in the door of hospitals, still the most effective way of gaining new consumers.”
In the report, launched last week, IBFAN detailed 813 alleged violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes by 27 companies in 81 countries between January 2011 and December 2013.
"It names and shames those companies and reminds the world that breastfeeding rates will continue to decline as long as corporate promotion is allowed to compete with breastfeeding and undermine mothers' confidence," it said.
"The inevitable consequence is increased levels of mortality and morbidity among infants and young children."
The report detailed scores of alleged violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes by leading infant formula manufacturers in countries including China, Egypt, Canada and Georgia.
Violations of the Code identified by IBFAN relate to advertising, events, in-shop promotion, and free samples.
Alongside these claims, IBFAN also scrutinized the use of social media by infant formula brands.
Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Google+ “provide a new avenue for companies to advertise products on electronic communication channels," the report said.
“These mobile and web-based technologies use ‘behavioral targeting’ offering a plethora of opportunities for companies to interact directly with unsuspecting consumers.”
“Advancing their electronic marketing even further, companies are developing mobile software application that millions can download onto their mobile phones, tablets, laptops and PCs. Companies use these apps as direct promotional tools. Several apps are purportedly designed to ‘help’ pregnant women and new mothers. Special offers, discounts, contests, product launches and campaign announcements are now available to tech-savvy young mothers and their families.”
To see the report in full, click here.