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Playing politics with public health

A mother breastfeeds her 5-month-old son.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Breast is best — that's what most new mothers are told these days. Well, today's Washington Post updates a controversy that erupted a few years ago over a government ad campaign. The ads were pretty strong, implying kids would get sick if you didn't breast feed.

The Post reports this got the formula industry so worked up they hired lobbyists to go in and turn things around. And it worked. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports on complaints that this incident is part of a bigger picture of political influence over public health.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Earlier this summer, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified before Congress. He said politically-appointed government officials often stymied his efforts to promote public health because of outside considerations.

Richard Carmona: Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointee's ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried.

Sidney Wolfe is with the Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington. He says interference from the formula industry in the breast-feeding campaign should come as no surprise. He says business interests have long got in the way of good public health decisions.

Sidney Wolfe: I mean if you're a company, you have to be sure a fiduciary responsibility to your stockholders to make as much money as possible. But when the process of doing that starts having adverse consequences on public health, then someone needs to step in.

But Christina Pearson of the Department of Health and Human Services says industry lobbyists were not the only group that precipitated a re-think of the pro breast-feeding ad campaign. She says early drafts of the ads caused consternation among scientists.

Christina Pearson: The changes that were made to the campaign were based on the advice of the top science and public health officials in this nation. They told us what the science would support.

And she says it wouldn't support the original ads' implication that certain illnesses, like diabetes, could be directly linked to lack of breast feeding.

The campaign that went ahead still featured ads with a heavily pregnant woman riding a bucking bronco. They implied that not breast feeding was just as risky for the baby. Pearson says those ads still managed to offend plenty of people.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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