New parents leaving U.S. hospitals often take home a corporate gift along with their babies: a tote bag filled with infant formula. Consumer advocates want to end the giveaways, which they say undermine breastfeeding.
In a letter to more than 2,600 hospitals, dozens of consumer and health organizations called on the facilities to stop distributing free samples of formula that they say entangles healthcare providers in pharmaceutical and food manufacturers' marketing and could be seen as an endorsement.
Giving formula to new parents discourages some new mothers from breastfeeding, the groups said on Monday in the letter sent by the advocacy group Public Citizen. They are also petitioning the $4 billion infant formula industry's leaders - Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson Nutrition Co and Nestle SA - to halt the practice.
Hospitals aim "to promote the health of infants and mothers, but the ongoing promotion of infant formula conflicts with this mission," Public Citizen President Robert Weissman wrote in the letter to hospital chief executives.
The move is part of a renewed effort to boost U.S. rates of breastfeeding, which is known to confer a wide range of health benefits from reducing obesity to boosting immunity and is recommended for at least a baby's first six months of life.
Formula makers and hospitals defend the free samples, saying they are meeting women's needs.
Just 14 percent of 6-month-old infants are exclusively breastfed, something U.S. health officials want to increase to about 26 percent by 2020. Breastfeeding also lags among lower-income women, according to the government data.
Still, breastfeeding in the United States is increasing, according to the World Health Organization, partly because more hospitals offer breastfeeding support and allow babies to stay in their mothers' hospital rooms.
About 66 percent of hospitals still give away formula, a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last year found, down from nearly 73 percent in 2007.