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Corporate Ties That Bind

©iStockphoto.com/pixhook

©iStockphoto.com/pixhook

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by Amy Spangler
September 14, 2010

If there was ever any question as to how far a company would go to earn a buck (actually millions of bucks), a recent analysis by Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman of Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that drugmaker Wyeth may have sunk to a new low.

In a recent interview, Fugh-Berman stated that Pfizer-owned Wyeth paid a medical communication company $20,000 each for 20 review articles down-playing the risks of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and up-playing the benefits. Wyeth’s actions were reportedly prompted by a sharp decline in sales of Prempro (a widely used hormone replacement drug), following the release of data from the Women’s Health Initiative study showing that HRT increased the risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, stroke, and other health problems.

The plot thickens with the revelation that Fugh-Berman was a paid expert witness for plaintiffs in hormone therapy litigation—suggesting a hint of bias. For those of us on the outside looking in, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. But these kinds of actions serve as a reminder to us all, that many corporations have one primary goal—generate profits—and we are naïve if we think these companies are going to forego profits in the interest of doing what’s morally and ethically right.

AAP News in the news
Although the AAP is a staunch supporter of breastfeeding, its ties to the formula industry have long been a source of controversy. The September 2010 issue of AAP News—a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics—boasts a full page ad for Gerber Good Start Protect Plus, described as, “The first formula with probiotic Bifidobacterium lactis* to support a healthy immune response in formula-fed infants.” Not surprising, the asterisk references tiny print in the footer which lets readers know that, “Bifidobacteria are the most abundant type of culture found in the digestive system of breastfed babies.” And the promotion of infant formula doesn’t stop there. On the following page is another full page ad for Earth’s Best organic infant formula—“The only thing better for baby comes from Mother herself.”

The AAP is not alone in forming partnerships with the formula industry. Babble.com was recently criticized for allowing Abbot Laboratories (maker of Similac infant formula) to sponsor its breastfeeding guide. It’s interesting to note that Babble’s action is similar to one taken by the AAP in 2005, when it allowed infant formula maker, Ross Pediatrics, to sponsor its “New Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding.” More recently, Old Navy garnered criticism for jumping on the infant formula bandwagon with it’s promotion of a 2-in-1 Tattoo-Graphic Bodysuit for Baby imprinted with a “Formula Powered” logo.

Breastfeeding may be widely accepted as the normal way to feed infants and young children, but actions such as those taken by the AAP and Babble cause one to question the extent to which kids truly count. The irony is hard to miss when organizations and companies accept money from the formula industry for the purpose of promoting breastfeeding.

Role of government
In an effort to advance specific causes, many look to government for assistance. But even governments operate under the influence of corporations. For example, if governments were sincere in their desire to represent the best interests of children, they would make the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes legally binding. Failure to adhere to the Code would result in fines and/or sanctions. But the fact remains that in most developed countries, including the U.S., the Code is viewed as a dog without teeth. Absent an enforcement component, infant formula manufacturers (including Pfizer-owned Wyeth and Nestle-owned Gerber) are able to market their products freely, expanding the use of infant formula to the detriment of breastfeeding. And, as evidenced by the actions of the AAP and Babble, there is no shortage of willing partners. The end result is millions of dollars in profit for the formula industry, which in turn is used to further increase formula sales—a marketing machine that breastfeeding advocates can’t begin to compete with given that our return on investment is healthy babies which equates with dollars saved not dollars generated.

Money makes the world go around
It’s difficult for breastfeeding advocates to compete with money-making machines. It’s even harder for those who rely on corporate donations to not only survive but thrive, to consider foregoing those donations. Without the revenues generated by advertisements there would be no AAP News, no newspapers, no magazines, no Google, not even high school yearbooks. But if a company like Evenflo (owner of Ameda, a popular breast pump company) can comply with the Code, so can others.

Sadly, we have become a society where power and influence more often take precedent over right and wrong—where principles are displaced by profits. It’s a 21st century reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon. And while my frustration persists, I have come to realize that my energy can be better spent helping those moms and dads who choose to breastfeed achieve their breastfeeding goals, and giving those who are undecided the knowledge they need to make an informed decision—which may or may not include breastfeeding their child—but will be honored and respected nonetheless.