HHS Toned Down Breast-Feeding Ads
Formula Industry Urged Softer Campaign
By Marc Kaufman and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 31, 2007; A01
In an attempt to raise the nation's historically low rate of breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma inhalers topped with rubber nipples.
Plans to run these blunt ads infuriated the politically powerful infant formula industry, which hired a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former top regulatory official to lobby the Health and Human Services Department . Not long afterward, department political appointees toned down the campaign.
The ads ran instead with more friendly images of dandelions and cherry-topped ice cream scoops, to dramatize how breast-feeding could help avert respiratory problems and obesity. In a February 2004 letter (pdf), the lobbyists told then-HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson they were "grateful" for his staff's intervention to stop health officials from "scaring expectant mothers into breast-feeding," and asked for help in scaling back more of the ads.
The formula industry's intervention -- which did not block the ads but helped change their content -- is being scrutinized by Congress in the wake of last month's testimony by former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona that the Bush administration repeatedly allowed political considerations to interfere with his efforts to promote public health.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating allegations from former officials that Carmona was blocked from participating in the breast-feeding advocacy effort and that those designing the ad campaign were overruled by superiors at the formula industry's insistence.
"This is a credible allegation of political interference that might have had serious public health consequences," said Waxman, a California Democrat.