The influence of large corporations on federal policy is nothing new, although the Trump administration seems to be even more unabashedly aligned with corporate interests than previous administrations. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s callousness and inhumanity on issues having to do with families and children is clear, most notably in its policy of separating immigrant parents and children – despite the First Lady’s “Be Best” campaign that promotes good child outcomes.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution in support of breastfeeding shocked medical professionals, diplomats, and public health officials around the world. In case you haven’t heard, the US delegation to a WHO meeting in May attempted to block and then succeeded in somewhat watering down a resolution that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and to put limits on misleading and dangerous marketing of breast-milk substitutes, such as infant formula, and other food products harmful to young children.

This effort by US officials promoted the interests of the $70 billion infant formula industry, despite decades of evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding over the use of infant formula. [1] Lobbyists for the industry were present at the meeting to support the Trump administration’s efforts. [2] The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for a baby’s first 6 months whenever possible, as well as for the next 6 months or longer as other foods are appropriately introduced. [3]

Some of you may remember the boycott of Nestle in the 1970s when it was aggressively promoting infant formula in developing countries where clean water for preparing infant formula was often not available. Babies died because infant formula was contaminated with bad water and because mothers couldn’t afford to the continue with the formula but couldn’t breast-feed because they had stopped lactating. Abbott Laboratories, based in Chicago, is one of the biggest corporations in the infant formula industry, along with Nestle, which is based in Switzerland but has a significant presence in the US.

Breastfeeding is the cheapest, easiest, and safest form of nutrition for infants in most cases, especially for low-income mothers and where clean, safe water is not reliably available. A 2016 study found that universal breastfeeding would save 800,000 infants’ lives annually around the world, while saving $300 billion as well. Breast milk provides not only nutrition, but hormones and antibodies that protect babies from diseases. Breast-fed infants have significantly fewer respiratory tract, ear, and gastrointestinal infections. Breast-feeding is also associated with lower risks of sudden infant death syndrome, allergies, asthma, eczema, celiac disease, bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, and leukemia. Mothers who breast-feed have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and high blood pressure. [4]

As part of its efforts to block the breastfeeding resolution, the US delegation threatened to cut its funding for the World Health Organization. The US is the biggest funder of the WHO, providing about 15% of its budget or $845 million. The WHO is essential to public health globally and in the US, as it provides, for example, the first response to flu and Ebola epidemics wherever they occur. It also plays a leading role in addressing the rising death toll from diabetes and cardiovascular disease around the world.

Ecuador, the original sponsor of the breastfeeding resolution, withdrew its sponsorship after the US threatened it with trade sanctions and withdrawal of military assistance, which helps it deal with violence spilling over its border with Columbia. Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor, but at least a dozen other countries refused citing fear of retaliation from the US. Russia finally agreed to sponsor the resolution, and apparently the US did not threaten it. [5]

Nonetheless, the US succeeded in weakening parts of the resolution. It insisted on adding the words “evidence-based” to references to long-standing practices that promote breastfeeding, despite public health experts pointing out that doing random assignment studies (where some children would be denied breast milk) to establish “evidence-based” outcomes would be ethically and morally unacceptable. The US unfortunately succeeded in getting language removed from the resolution that called on the WHO to support governments in their efforts to block the “inappropriate promotion of foods to infants and young children.”

In another part of the resolution, the US succeeded, unfortunately, in removing language that supported taxing sugar-laden soft drinks as a strategy for addressing soaring rates of obesity around the world. Fortunately, however, the US was unsuccessfully in its attempts to block a WHO program that helps poor countries obtain life-saving medicines at an affordable cost; opposition to this program comes, not surprisingly, from the pharmaceutical corporations.

It is appalling to me that the US government is making corporate profits a higher priority than the lives, health, and well-being of children and adults around the world, including in the US. These examples from the WHO meeting are some of the more dramatic and appalling ones, but there are plenty of other ones.

Corporate profits have been prioritized over the well-being of workers and the middle class in the US, in a variety of ways, for almost 40 years now. This is why US voters were so angry with the status quo in the federal government that in 2016 almost half of eligible voters did not vote in the presidential election and why almost half of those that did vote, voted for Trump. (He won in the Electoral College even though he lacked a majority of the actual votes.)

We need to change our policy priorities and put people first and regulate corporations so they serve the public good. The whole point of allowing the creation of corporations and other limited liability organizations was to more efficiently promote the public good and an economy where everyone could pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose for corporations and the priorities of our public policies have gotten turned upside down. Particularly in the US., but elsewhere as well, the priorities of government and the role of corporations in our economy need to be returned to those of the late 1940s through the 1970s when income inequality was much lower and economic security was much higher.

[1]      Khazan, O., 7/10/18, “The epic battle between breast milk and infant-formula companies,” The Atlantic

[2]      Jacobs, A., 7/8/18, “U.S. opposition to breast-feeding resolution stuns world health officials,” The New York Times

[3]      Williams, E., 7/10/18, “Breastfeeding: The benefits,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Rabin, R. C., 7/9/18, “Trump stance on breast-feeding and formula criticized by medical experts,” The New York Times

[5]      Jacobs, A., 7/8/18, see above


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