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Milk Money: How Corporate Interests Shaped Government Health Policy for Women

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Last summer, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled an ad campaign to promote breast-feeding in the United States. We look at how baby formula corporations put intense pressure on the government to change its approach and eventually reshaped the campaign. [includes rush transcript]

Last summer, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled an ad campaign to promote breast-feeding. As it turns out, the campaign was much different that what was originally produced. It was a battle between mother’s milk and the companies that make infant formula who put intense pressure on the government to change its approach.

The ABC news program 20/20 produced an investigative report about the efforts of the formula companies to shape the government ad campaign. This is an excerpt from the program where ABC ’s Investigative correspondent Brian Ross asks Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and Human services Christina Beato why the formula companies met with then-Secretary Tommy Thompson.

  • MILK MONEY, excerpt of 20/20 Investigative Report.

Last night the story received a Gracie Award which recognizes exemplary programming created for women, by women and about women in all facets of electronic media.

  • Anne Merewood, Director of Research for breastfeeding center at the Boston Medical Center. She is involved in the breastfeeding awareness campaign for the northeast region.
  • Yoruba Richen, producer on Democracy Now! Before that, she worked in the investigative unit of ABC News. She was a field producer for the story Milk Money.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt from the program where ABC’s investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, asks Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, Christina Beato, why the formula companies met with then secretary Tommy Thompson.

BRIAN ROSS: Why is it the industry gets to meet with the secretary, Mr. Thompson, but the breastfeeding advocacy groups do not? They didn’t hire the right lobbyists, is that what you are saying?

CHRISTINA BEATO: I’m telling you, they have been working with this department all along.

BRIAN ROSS: But they asked to meet with secretary Thompson and have not had a meeting like that.

CHRISTINA BEATO: Oh, I’m not aware of that.

BRIAN ROSS: Did you meet with people from the infant formula companies?

CHRISTINA BEATO: Yes, I did. I met with them sometime in the spring, late spring.

BRIAN ROSS: Did you meet with people from the advocacy groups?

CHRISTINA BEATO: I have not met with people from advocacy groups. They never asked to meet with me.

BRIAN ROSS: But you met with the industry.

CHRISTINA BEATO: I met with the industry, because they kept calling my office every two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the “20/20” investigative report, “Milk Money.” Last night, the story received a Gracie Award, which recognizes exemplary programming created for women, by women and about women in all facets of electronic media. Joining us on the program is Anne Merewood, she is Director of Research for the Breastfeeding Center at the Boston Medical Center, and Yoruba Richen, she was the field producer on the story and she is a Democracy Now! producer now. And it was wonderful to see Yoruba last night, as part of the team winning this award. Yoruba, I want to start off with you, why did you focus on this story? Why was it so important?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, when we found out about what was happening with this ad campaign, the correspondent that I worked with, Brian Ross, was very interested in digging into this and exposing the efforts of the formula company to not only shape the ad campaign, but to really — to really mold it into what they wanted to see, and it was a classic case of pharmaceutical companies, big money, shaping public policy. And we felt it was such an important story, and we were lucky to work with great women advocates, people who were frustrated with what was going on. And we got documents that showed that the formula company was meeting with the Department of Health and Human Services and that the campaign was being changed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Why was the campaign launched by the government to begin with?

YORUBA RICHEN: Anne, maybe you want to speak to that since you were a part of the —

ANNE MEREWOOD: Well, the risks of formula feeding are very high, and the government hasn’t given much attention to it in terms of public policy in the past. The formula industries really dominated the airwaves, has dominated the marketplace, and it was just about time that the government did something about it, so the Office on Women’s Health took it on as a major public health issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say there are risks of formula feeding, could you specify?

ANNE MEREWOOD: Well, we have always talked in the past about the benefits of breastfeeding, but in reality, it’s the risks of formula feeding. And all of the studies show that in very many different areas, things like obesity, I.Q., diabetes, ear infections, all of these different areas, that if women breastfeed, the child is much less likely to suffer from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, specifically, what the report was about was a change of an ad. You had this ad that was going to go out, that ABC got a hold of, that basically Yoruba said and you played it at the top of your own piece in “Milk Money.”

YORUBA RICHEN: The ad council — it’s very important to remember that the ad council had done studies and focus groups to see what was going to be most effective in getting women to change their behavior and to increase breastfeeding rates. They found that focusing on the risks of not breastfeeding, was the — was more effective than focusing on pro-breastfeeding. So, that is the direction they took in the campaign. They said in these original ads, not breastfeeding causes these — you know, may cause increased risk of these different — of different problems for babies.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, they said leukemia —


AMY GOODMAN: They said diabetes.


AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s go to the ad, while still strong, which doesn’t refer to it in this way. We’re going to play the ad for video viewers. And I’ll describe over it for our radio viewers. This is an ad where a woman is on a mechanical — gets on — a very pregnant woman gets on a mechanical bull, is hoisted up on this bull and then she starts to rock on it, and she is ultimately thrown off this bull. It says, “You wouldn’t take these risks before birth; why start after?”

AD: Recent studies show babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop ear infections, respiratory illnesses and diarrhea. Babies were born to be breastfed.

AMY GOODMAN: And so it talked about babies being breastfed and that they will have less infections. Anne.

ANNE MEREWOOD: I think it’s important to realize that the ads were change. They weren’t completely eliminated. And they took out some of the risk-based very strong language, but their ads were designed to attract public attention, and I think actually the formula industry did us the biggest favor they could have ever done, which was that they made such a big stink about this that they got far more publicity than it may ever have gotten if the formula industry hadn’t gone in there and tried to do something about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did they actually get access to the Department of Health and Human Services? How intense was this campaign?

YORUBA RICHEN: It was very intense. From what we — you know, from what we know, it was extremely intense. They hired, and we showed later in the report, a Republican lobbyist, a man named Clayton Yeutter, who used to work or, I think, be head of the Department of Agriculture, who was writing letters to Tommy Thompson. They obviously had a relationship. As we said in the report, the letters started off, 'Dear Tommy, thank you for changing and — listening to our concerns and changing. We'd like more change.’ So, they had an access that, you know, classic case of lobbying, money, having access to government policy. I mean, you expect the formula companies to do this — to do this. That’s what — you know, that’s what — how companies work, but for the Department of Health and Human Services to be receptive to it and change it, I mean, that’s the issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the assistant head of the department said that the infant formula companies were lobbying them constantly, that you, the lactivists, which is the new term for the pro-breastfeeding activists like those who stood outside Barbara Walters’s “The View,” when she said she felt uncomfortable seeing women breastfeed in public. You, they said, were not there pushing them.

ANNE MEREWOOD: It’s not true that we weren’t there pushing them. In the end, I believe that they did not get an interview, but that wasn’t because there wasn’t a lot of effort. There were a lot of people trying to do a lot of things to get into the government. And they did talk with all the people in the government. But I believe the formula industry was very, very persistent with the phone calls.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was the role of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which — most of the public would expect some kind of a dispassionate perspective from the medical establishment?

ANNE MEREWOOD: The American Academy receives millions of dollars a year in support from the formula industry. If you go to any of their conferences, they’re the biggest advertisers at the conferences. They give out lots of literature to the doctors, and they were the people that originally intervened, and when the formula industry went to the American Academy of Pediatrics, then the AAP started to put pressure on the government. So they were very much involved.

AMY GOODMAN: You had this very strange irony where the head of a division within the American Academy of Pediatrics —

ANNE MEREWOOD: Was not consulted.

AMY GOODMAN: Was very much pro these first ads?

ANNE MEREWOOD: Yeah. That was the breastfeeding committee of the AAP, but they were not actually involved in the debate. They were not invited to the table.

YORUBA RICHEN: You know, in that case, too, what they always do is question the science. Oh, the science, and she — we showed her doing that in the piece. The science isn’t there. The science — it’s not supported by science. And Larry Gartner, Dr. Larry Gartner, who was the former head of the Chicago Medical School, who was the head of the breastfeeding section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, you know, stands — and very respected in his field, this science was good. And the science was strong enough to put in these ads. And they were able to do away with them by questioning the science and by discrediting it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being here, Anne Merewood, Director of Research for Breastfeeding Center at the Boston Medical Center, and congratulations, Yoruba Richen, Democracy Now! producer. It’s great to have you here.

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