Political Pressure Touches Breastfeeding Promotion Campaign
Today’s Washington Post has a lengthy piece on how the Department of Health and Human Services was pressured to tone down a breastfeeding promotion campaign following formula industry intervention, and a report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (an HHS agency) was effectively buried due to pressure from political appointees.
From the article:
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 issue is coming to light “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.
Who was involved in pressure to modify the ad campaign?
Two of the those involved were Clayton Yeutter, an agriculture secretary under President George H.W. Bush and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Joseph A. Levitt, who four months earlier directed the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition food safety center, which regulates infant formula. A spokesman for the International Formula Council said both were paid by a formula manufacturer to arrange meetings at HHS.
In a Feb. 17, 2004, letter to Thompson, Yeutter began “Dear Tommy” and explained that the council wished to meet with him because the draft ad campaign was inappropriately “implying that mothers who use infant formula are placing their babies at risk,” and could give rise to class-action lawsuits.
However, it doesn’t stop there:
According to former and current HHS officials, Cristina V. Beato, then an acting assistant secretary at HHS, played a key role — in addition to that of Keane — in toning down the ads. They said she stressed to associates that it was essential to “be fair” to the formula companies.
Right. Because public health is all about being “fair” to corporations. Corporations who spend $60 million/year just on promoting the product you’re trying to encourage women to use less of.
Another top agency official who weighed in on the campaign was Ann-Marie Lynch, then in charge of the agency’s Office of Planning and Evaluation. Lynch, a former lobbyist for the drug industry trade association PhRMA, reversed an HHS decision to finance a $630,000 community outreach effort to promote breast-feeding, according to an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. Asked to comment, Lynch said she never discussed “baby formula issues with baby formula manufacturers” at HHS.
The AHRQ, which develops summaries of the best evidence in medicine in order to guide improved and evidence-based medical care, was also affected by political pressure, according to the piece. AHRQ officials were instructed not to attempt to generate any media attention for a report on breastfeeding:
In April, according to officials and documents, the department chose not to promote a comprehensive analysis by its own Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of multiple studies on breast-feeding, which generally found it was associated with fewer ear and gastrointestinal infections, as well as lower rates of diabetes, leukemia, obesity, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome.
While the AHRQ does good work, many people aren’t aware of them – prohibiting media contacts on the report would greatly reduce the chance that the findings would be noticed by a broader segment of folks.
But her [Suzanne Haynes, an epidemiologist and senior science adviser for the department’s Office on Women’s Health] office, which commissioned the report, was specifically instructed by political appointees not to disseminate a news release.
Wanda K. Jones, director of the women’s health office, said agency media officials have “all been hammering me” about getting Haynes to stop trying to draw attention to the AHRQ report. HHS press officer Rebecca Ayer emphatically told Haynes and others in mid-July that there should be “no media outreach to anyone” on that topic, current and former officials said.
You might have realized that political pressure has been applied in the past with regards to sex ed, emergency contraception, and other reproductive/women’s health issues. But breastfeeding? In order not to promote it too much? Urgh.
MSNBC has a copy of the story that doesn’t require registration.