Delay, Delay, Delay – industry interference in Sri Lanka

The baby food industry is believed to be acting true to form in Sri Lanka – and seems to have succeeded in blocking and delaying the implementation of new Labelling and Advertising regulations  until 2025. (1)   

Since 2004, Sri Lanka’s families have been protected by a Law that contains important provisions recommended by the World Health Assembly to protect  breastfeeding and maternal and child health. The Sri Lankan law is strong, but has several key loopholes that need to be closed to ensure that all the problematic products are covered along with commercial misinformation channelled through  digital marketing.

Digital marketing of baby feeding products is especially problematic and in many countries is now totally out of control, with parents and carers flooded with misleading information about expensive, environmentally wasteful products. Companies use ‘influencers’, algorithms and all manner of deceptive schemes that undermine WHO and national health recommendations and disempower women.

At an Advocacy Workshop in August,  Dr Nigel Rollins, from WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child & Adolescent Health and Ageing Dr. Nigel Rollins stressed the strong evidence of the importance of breastfeeding for human biology, lifelong health and development, maternal health and child survival, and the need for maternity protection in all work sectors. He commended  the country’s regulatory response to marketing and congratulated Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health and Family Health Bureau for achieving the country’s high breastfeeding rates: data from 2016 shows 90% early initiation of breastfeeding and 83% continuing breastfeeding.
However, Dr Rollins warned  that “if you are not going forward, you will go backwards …  informing and educating health workers and families is important, but it is not enough….. this is a market-driven world where the marketing of commercial milk formula (CMF) captures parents, communities, science and policy’.  He asked whether sanctions had been applied and urged more resources to monitor and implement regulations.
The new regulations are backed by leading Sri Lankan health professionals and after being agreed in 2022 were published in mid-2023 (under the Food Act No 26 of 1980).  They contain several important clauses that extend the prohibitions to children up to three years of age and through “electronic media, social media or any other means any advertisement, audio-visual or a pictorial representation either directly or indirectly, of a pregnant or lactating mothers” and promotions for foods and beverages for children up to 12 years of age.
Covering the Workshop, The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka’s leading English Newspaper (3) quoted Health Ministry officials, including the Director-General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardena, state hospital directors and two international experts who referred to the  “insidious inroads being made by formula milk companies to influence mothers using advertising gimmicks as well as healthcare personnel including doctors with sponsorships and other perks”.  

Action at Global level

WHO’s forthcoming 154th Executive Board (EB)  meeting in January, ahead of the World Health Assembly in May,  will debate Maternal Infant and Young Child Nutrition and the harmful impact of Digital marketing.WHO’s 2022 report on digital marketing.

IBFAN and health advocates are hoping that the  EB and WHA will adopt a   Resolution supporting the new WHO Guidance on regulatory measures aimed at restricting digital marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes

Implementing the Guidance will have zero cost for most governments, yet the lowering of healthcare costs and stronger, more able workforces will benefit national and family economies. Globally, breastfeeding is the single most effective intervention in preventing deaths in children under five and if all mothers who want to breastfeed were supported, nearly half of all diarrhoea episodes and one-third of all respiratory infections would be avoided.


(1) New Labelling and Advertising regulations, backed by leading Sri Lankan health professionals,   were agreed in 2022 and gazetted in mid 2023 (under the Food Act No 26 of 1980) They are publicly accessible on this link  and  contain several clauses to protect children from unethical marketing practices  (all types) with regard to commercial milk formulae  (with prohibitions up to three years of age) as well as other foods and beverages and use of children in food ads. (12 yrs)/

Some key  points of the new law:

  • (14) No advertising agency, agent or institution of anymedia (print, electronic, outdoor) shall accept any advertisement containing health claims or nutrient function claims of food without the “Letter of Approval” issued by the Chief Food Authority.
  • (16) A person shall not advertise infant formulae (starter), infant formulae (follow on), any other food for infants or milk and milk based products for young children.
  • (17) A person shall not advertise in a product label, print, electronic media, social media or any other means any advertisement, audio-visual or a pictorial representation either directly or indirectly, of a pregnant or lactating mothers, an. Infant or child under the age of twelve (12) in relation to food.
  • (18) A person shall not promote any food directly or indirectly to children under twelve (12) years of age by way of advertisements, leaflets, free samples, articles, or toys attached to food items or separately or by using cartoon character, mascot or celebrities or any other form, unless approved by the Chief Food Authority 

(2) The 2004 Sri Lanka Code for the Promotion, Protection of Breastfeeding and the Marketing of Designated Products  is described in the 2022 WHO/UNICEF/IBFAN Code Report as ‘moderately aligned’ with the Code  and has a score of 69 (out of a possible total of 100).

(3) Alert on insidious efforts of commercial formula milk companies:  Importance of breastfeeding for both mother and child underscored. By Kumudini Hettiarachchi. October 1st 2023.


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