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Putting pressure on the Philippines

There was a time, before the creation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, when formula companies could market their products however they chose to. And it must be said that they devised creative ways to keep babies away from breastmilk and firmly attached to formula bottles. Formula company saleswomen dressed as nurses roamed the halls of the world’s hospitals, and doctors on the formula payroll dolled out tins of formula to mothers everywhere.

But the world is changing. Every year more countries pass laws prohibiting the aggressive advertising of breastmilk substitutes — five more countries have done so in the past two years alone — and the formula companies are getting scared. What else could explain the outrageous action American formula manufacturers have taken against a Filipino breastfeeding-protection law that would ban formula advertising in the country.

After years of dedicated campaigning by Filipino activists, this summer the Philippines Department of Health decided to implement extremely strong laws on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, known as the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of Executive Order 51. The IRR would strengthen the country’s existing breastfeeding-protection laws and effectively ban the marketing of infant formula, bringing national regulations into line with the International Code and subsequent, relevant resolutions of the World Health Assembly.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the IRR of EO 51 are essential to the health and wellbeing of the people of the Philippines. Out of 56 countries which have performed a National Demographic and Health Study in the past ten years, the Philippines ranks the lowest in breastfeeding rates. Only 16 per cent of Filipino children are exclusively breastfed four to five months.

More lives of Filipino children could be saved by raising breastfeeding rates than by any other single intervention. The World Health Organization estimates that 10,000 infant deaths could be saved by improved breastfeeding practices in the country, and has called the implementation of the IRR a critical step in that direction. A study1 conducted in the Philippines has shown that when mothers fail to initiate or cease breastfeeding it results in an eight- to ten-fold increase in diarrheal mortality.

Dec 6, 2006: (left and below) Members of Philippine NGO Arugaan march on the Supreme Court to protest the temporary restraining order applied to new breastfeeding protection laws.

But despite the vital role that the IRR would play in promoting the health of Filipino children, major American formula companies, fearing the loss of another national market, have acted quickly to block the IRR. Abbott Ross, Mead Johnson, and Wyeth, along with the Swiss-owned Gerber, enlisted the Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHAP) to challenge the law in the Filipino supreme court. In its submission to the court, the association said the new rules were unfair because it would cost the formula companies USD$ 128 million to comply with them, USD$ 120 million of which would be in lost sales.

The PHAP sought a restraining order that would tie up the IRR in a legal battle and delay their institution indefinitely. The formula companies also enlisted the help of the US Chamber of Commerce (COC). COC president Thomas Donahue wrote a letter to Filipino president Gloria Arroyo warning that the implementation of the IRR would pose a "risk to the reputation of the Philippines as a stable and viable destination for investment."

The supreme court initially denied PHAP’s request for a restraining order, but under this pressure from the USA it amazingly reversed its own decision a month later, four days after the letter from Donahue. The restraining order was issued and the IRR have yet to be implemented.

Outraged by this attempt to block Filipino efforts to safeguard the health of their infants, activists both inside the country and overseas launched a campaign to support the department of health and the implementation of the IRR. A trip to the country by INFACT Canada’s Betty Sterken and Baby Milk Action UK’s Patti Rundall demonstrated international solidarity with the people of the Philippines and garnered much media attention.

The pair appeared on television and gave press conferences, and their visit ended up on the front page of many of the country’s newspapers. This is rare in the Philippines, where criticism of multinational corporations is usually restricted as the economy is heavily dependent on their investment.

* * *

The fight to implement the IRR took a huge blow on December 6 when Assistant Solicitor General Nestor J. Ballocillo, the government attorney who was defending the regulations from PHAP attacks, was murdered along with his son Benedict on the way to work.

Political assassinations are frequent in the Philippines, and there is no direct evidence that Ballocillo was killed because of his support for breastfeeding. He was a liberal solicitor who took on many cases against the country’s powerful elite. However, he was only working on two high-profile cases at the time of his murder, one of which was the baby milk case. The other involved the government expropriation of airport land, a case which has already seen one judge assassinated.

The solicitor general has vowed that the struggle to implement the IRR will go on despite the murder, and support for the IRR continues to pour in from around the world. The new regulations have been approved by the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action. The government of the Philippines has both the legal and moral authority to enact laws to protect the health of its citizens, and the action taken by American companies amounts to an attack on the sovereignty of the Filipino nation.


Baby Milk Action (IBFAN UK) is coordinating a large campaign against this miscarriage of justice and affront to the sovereignty of the Philippines. Please visit http://www.babymilkaction.org/CEM/cemnov06.html#1 to learn what you can do and to sign their petition.


Letters that have been written by Canadians, Americans, and Britons to the Chamber of Commerce and the Filipino Department of Health have demonstrated international solidarity with the people of the Philippines and have helped publicise the issue inside the country. But there is still much to be done; the IRR are still under a restraining order and their enactment is not assured. If you have not already done so, please write to the following addresses and declare your support for breastfeeding protection in the Philippines.

Filipino Secretary of Health Francisco Duque: ftduque@co.doh.gov.ph

Honourable Thomas J. Donahue:
President and Chief Executive Officer
Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America
1615 H Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20062-2000


1. PW Yoon et al. Effect of not breastfeeding on the risk of diarrheal and respiratory mortality in children under 2 years of age in Metro Cebu, The Philippines. American Journal of Epidemiology 1996;143(11):1142-1148.



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