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UNICEF HK's Survey Finds The Hong Kong Code Ineffective

HONG KONG, 25 July 2018 – The Hong Kong Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF HK) says today that nursing mothers continue to receive informational and promotional materials from baby formula milk companies that target at babies under 36 months old, bringing into question the effectiveness of the Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Formula Milk and Related Products, and Food Products for Infants & Young Children (the Hong Kong Code) in safeguarding breastfeeding, as a survey shows.

The survey was conducted on the first anniversary of the Hong Kong Code, launched by the Food and Health Bureau in June 2017, which provides guidelines and principles for the manufacturers and distributors to observe as they carry out promotional and educational activities involving formula milk and related products. Specifically, the Hong Kong Code aims to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants and young children by protecting breastfeeding and ensuring the proper use of products covered by the Hong Kong Code, on the basis of adequate and unbiased information and through appropriate marketing.

A total of 511 mothers with infants and young children below 36 months old were interviewed on the street or approached via online questionnaire by UNICEF HK last week.  According to the survey, over 90% of respondents were either frequently or occasionally exposed to infant and young child formula milk advertisements and promotion activities through various marketing channels in the past three months.  Among them, 42% said that such advertisements were for 0 to 6-month-old infants and 67% said that they were for 6-36 month-old infants and young children, suggesting that the Hong Kong Code which applies to products for infants and young children under 36 months old has not been effectively implemented.

The survey also shows that there are marketing practices which violate the Hong Kong Code, such as seeking personal details for the purpose of promoting formula milk products. 89% of those respondents whose personal data were captured by formula milk companies had been approached, and among them, 40% were solicited to take formula milk information.   41% of respondents received formula milk promotion information at events organized by these companies.  Besides, 61% of respondents received product samples for infants and young children under 36 months old.

“We are concerned that any marketing and promotion materials that do not comply with the Hong Kong Code or fail to provide factual and correct information would affect parents’ choice of food for their babies or undermine the value of breastfeeding. UNICEF encourages mothers to feed their babies with the best and most nutritious food – breastmilk – to give their babies a healthy start.“said Jane Lau, Chief Executive, UNICEF HK.

Dr. Patricia Ip, Vice Chairperson, Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association, who was present today to point out the limitations of the Hong Kong Code, said, “the Hong Kong Code, being voluntary in practice cannot impose any sanctions on non-compliance. Product claims and sales inducement practices are not included in the Hong Kong Code and pregnant women and new parents can be approached with different pretexts. More proactive education and reminding of manufacturers and distributors on compliance with the Hong Kong Code are required.  Besides, public education should emphasize that “follow-up milks” are not necessary.”

Jane Lau added, “The government should take immediate steps to tighten measures against any breaches of the Hong Kong Code, including monitoring the marketing behavior of formula milk companies and sanctioning against any inappropriate claims of formula milk products for infant and young child. UNICEF HK urges the HKSAR Government to strengthen the regulations on marketing of breastmilk substitutes to bring Hong Kong in line with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and consider giving statutory backing to the Hong Kong Code.”

Mrs Wan, mother of an 11-month-old boy and Rita, mother of a 5-year-old boy and an 8-month -old girl came to share their experience with marketing and promotion by formula milk companies. Mrs Wan has been approached by sales representatives of formula milk companies outside the gate every time she visited the Maternal and Child Health Center. She started receiving formula milk feeding information when her son turned 4 months old during the sales call of these formula milk companies.  Rita expressed concerns on the exaggerated health claims showed in formula milk advertisement in the market.

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