This is part of our guide to monitoring in the UK. This page and the following pages explain what companies can and cannot do.
You will find this information in printed form in our monitoring kit.
We will look at the main provisions of the rules. The Code and Resolutions – and the UK law.
Advertising of breastmilk substitutes
International Code and Resolutions
The Code and Resolutions prohibit all advertising and other forms of promotion of breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats. The ban on promotion covers infant formula, follow-on formula and milks for older babies (up to 36 months). There is no restriction on products being sold, as long as they comply with labelling and composition requirements.
Companies may provide scientific and factual information to health workers. Health workers are responsible for supporting parents.
The UK Law prohibits advertising and promotion of infant formula only (marketed for use from birth). Follow-on formula (marketed for use from 6 months of age) and milks for older babies can be advertised and promoted – BUT this must not cross-promote infant formula through similar branding or by it not being obvious the product is for older babies.
Formula is widely advertised in the UK. Below is an internet and television advertisement for the Aptamil brand, promoting it as based on 40 years of breastmilk research.
The advertisement suggests the formula turns babies into mathematical geniuses and gives them the strength, stamina and balance of ballerinas.
Advertising such as this breaks the Code and Resolutions.
Article 5.1 of the Code states:
There should be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public of products within the scope of this Code.
The Code covers all breastmilk substitutes – that is any product that substitutes for breastmilk (including follow-on formula and milks for older babies) – feeding bottles and teats.
Note, World Health Assembly Resolution 39.28 states:
the practice being introduced in some countries of providing infants with specially formulated milks (so-called “follow-up milks”) is not necessary.
Such advertising also breaks the UK Regulations, though this has not been tested in court as the enforcement authorities have not yet brought a prosecution.
It is illegal to advertise infant formula to the public. Scientific and factual information can be provided to health workers and infant formula can be advertised to the retail trade. The full text of Regulation 21 can be found below.
Although follow-on formula can be advertised to the public under the Regulations, they require the avoidance of “any risk of confusion between infant formula and follow-on formula”.
The Guidance Notes state clearly:
48. In order to achieve compliance, companies will therefore need to [inter alia] ensure that formula advertising does not:
• promote a range of formula products by making the brand the focus of the advert, rather than specific products (e.g. where specific products are mentioned only in a footnote or in a picture of a tin of formula within the advertisement)
The example below is typical as the brand used for the infant formula dominates. The advertiser tries to squeeze through the follow-on formula loophole by including a picture of a tin of follow-on formula. This is insufficient according to the Guidance Notes.
In this particular case, Trading Standards told then owners Pfizer/Wyeth to change the advertising, but did not bring a prosecution, instead deferring to an investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA upheld two of Baby Milk Action’s complaints, ruling that Pfizer/Wyeth could not substantiate its claim that SMA formula is the “best”, but it rejected the argument regarding legality.
The ASA levies no fines and requires no corrections. It enforces its own voluntary code and is funded by the advertising industry. (For further information, see the Baby Milk Action briefing: How the Advertising Standards Authority fails to protect babies and their families in the UK).
The formula pictured in the advertisement is incorrectly labelled as it is virtually identical to the infant formula. The regulations state with regard to formula labels:
19. Infant formula and follow-on formula shall be labelled in such a way that it enables consumers to make a clear distinction between such products so as to avoid any risk of confusion between infant formula and follow on formula.
Baby Milk Action asked Nestlé to respect the law when it purchased the SMA brand in 2012, but despite several relaunches of the packaging, it continues to make labels virtually identical and cross promotional.
The full text of regulation 21, prohibiting promotion of infant formula is as follows:
21.—(1) No person shall advertise infant formula—
(i) in a scientific publication, or
(ii) for the purposes of trade prior to the retail stage, in a publication of which the intended readership is other than the general public; and
(b) unless the advertisement complies with the provisions of regulation 17(1)(e), (2), (3) and (4), [relating to information required on labels] regulation 19 [requiring a clear distinction from follow-on formula] and paragraph (2) and (3) [below].
(2) Advertisements for infant formula shall only contain information of a scientific and factual nature.
(3) Information in advertisements for infant formula shall not imply or create a belief that bottle-feeding is equivalent or superior to breast feeding.
Please report any practices that concern you to firstname.lastname@example.org
Guide to UK formula rules: